For Clewiston, this ‘trash talking’ won’t be any fun

CLEWISTON — City commissioners have put off raising Clewiston’s gabage collection fee until they can talk about other possible options at their Oct. 15 meeting, saying they didn’t want to go ahead and impose the hefty proposed increase on top of a 5 percent boost in the city’s property tax rate.

Now, the matter will come up for discussion again after more information is presented on the $11-a-month jump that city staff was seeking beginning in January 2019. The commissioners, who approved the increase from $19.95 a month to $30.95 earlier last month, tabled the matter Sept. 24 and asked City Manager Al Perry and staff to take a more in-depth look at what can be done, if anything, to soften the financial blow.

When Mayor Mali Gardner brought up the resolution for second reading that Monday night, Commissioner Julio Rodriguez said: “The motion I’d like to make is that I think we ought to … do some more research and table the item at this time. I’m not ready to raise rates 40 percent tonight.” Commissioner Phillip Roland corrected him, saying, “Fifty-five percent.”

“And I don’t believe any of us are,” answered Mayor Gardner, noting that staff had presented a five-year rate study by the Lee County Solid Waste Authority showing that with the scheduled January 2019 hike, its rates will have increased by 71 percent since 2016. “I agree that there’s still some unanswered questions,” she said.

“In fact, when is the county’s contract up with Lee County? We pay a tonnage fee, a pass-through rate to Hendry County, and I just wanted to … have more discussions with the county. I know staff has already gone over for one meeting with the county on this, and Lee County, but I think there’s additional discussions we need to have with the county before we make any final decisions on this,” she explained.

Although the fiscal 2019 budget is balanced using the old fee, staff know costs are going to jump substantially. “The fees go up in January with Lee County, and we need to make a decision over the next month,” the mayor said.

Mr. Rodriguez asked about Lee making money from the city’s garbage, saying he thought it was burned partly to produce electricity. Finance Director Shari Howell confirmed that was stated in the staff’s meetings with Lee and Hendry (with which the city has a contract to dispose of its garbage). “They do generate power with that and they do sell this power when they burn the garbage, but it’s not as lucrative as it once was,” she said.

Commissioner Rodriguez declared: “Lee County’s almost putting us out of business. They make money off of our trash and they’re increasing our rates yearly. I mean, we can’t continue passing these increases to our citizens. Thirty dollars a month for a garbage rate to me is a little on the high side.”

“Very,” agreed the mayor. “But our contract is with Hendry County. Their rate is lower. I’m sure in January there’s going to have to be some changes made when the tonnage rate goes up.”

Ms. Howell said that the Lee SWA charges a $5 per ton surcharge for Clewiston’s waste that is returned to Hendry County for its solid waste capital fund and used only for landfill expenses.

Commissioner Roland said: “I think that we need to talk to Hendry County first. We’re paying more than I think the City of LaBelle pays, but I do realize and we have to realize we’re 30 miles farther than LaBelle is.”

Mayor Gardner noted that the City of LaBelle does not have its own trucks for garbage pickup while Clewiston does.

“So those are some of the questions that we have to look at. And also, I know that it’s been recommended to look at once-a-week pickup. Do we continue with twice a week? Do we look at other options? You know, you’re absolutely right. The conversation needs to be had with Hendry County of what other options we have,” she said.

Mr. Rodriguez said the city should consider negotiating its own deal. “Obviously, going through the county, we’re not getting any special breaks on prices. Is the county (Hendry) fighting for us? Because we’re piggybacking off of them.”

City Manager Perry answered, “They were at the table with us when we met with Lee County and they’re as concerned as we are.” But, he noted, Hendry raised its rates last year and is not doing so this year.

Mayor Gardner summed up: “So I think those are all good conversations that we need to have with the county. Well, staff, first of all, needs to have some additional conversations with Hendry and with Lee county, and we need to look at all our options and see what needs to be done going forward.”

The council voted 4-0 with Commissioner Kristine Petersen absent to table the discussion.

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