Garbage pickup cost in Clewiston likely to jump

CLEWISTON — City residents soon will be paying substantially more to dispose of their household waste if the City Commission votes later this month to affirm its Sept. 10 decision to proceed, as staff recommends, with a 55 percent jump in rates.

The monthly garbage pickup fee would go from $19.95 to $30.95, an increase of $11, due to the city’s being locked into a Hendry County contract with the Lee County Solid Waste Authority. Its tipping fees have more than tripled since 2009, according to city staff.

A discussion of the situation under Hendry’s contract followed the commissioners’ tentative adoption at their regular meeting of the city’s 2018-19 property tax rate and budget. Clewiston is set to increase its ad valorem millage by 4.7 percent above the rollback rate (the millage that would produce the same amount as the city took in during fiscal 2017-18).

As City Manager Al Perry explained during the special public hearing on the budget: “We have discussed in detail the fact that our tonnage (rate) for disposal has gone up significantly over the last three years. The year before last it was 20 percent (higher); this year we saw 14 percent. And in the three-year rate study that Lee County has done, I believe it’s a 6 or 7 percent increase each year.”

He said the only way to balance the city’s solid waste budget for the coming 2019 fiscal year was to use $186,000 from its reserves. “If you approve the new rate, that wouldn’t be necessary,” Mr. Perry explained.

Finance Director Shari Howell, however, recommended the large increase because that money’s set aside for a reason. If commissioners approve, it will stay in the reserve of the dedicated solid waste fund “to be ready in case we have a hurricane. We do bear the burden of the debris cleaning, the expense,” Mr. Perry said.

He added that staff calculated no further increases would be needed if the proposal is OK’d. “We feel, by the rate study that was done by Lee County, that will get us by at least three years, and we may not have to go up again.”

Commissioner Julio Rodriguez asked whether they’d looked at other options, saying he knew Lee County was “on the high side of the tipping fees. How are we going to stop this from escalating to where the bills just get astronomically high for our residents?”

He suggested meeting with their officials because “we owe it to our citizens to make sure that we are trying to resolve this so that we don’t have to raise rates every two or three years,” noting that adding a recycling program had been discussed to reduce the fees.

But, Commissioner Rodriguez went on, now Lee’s SWA not only is no longer accepting recyclable materials, it’s even ceased its own program “because there’s not a market for it.”

Public Works Director Sean Sheffler said that he, Mr. Perry and Ms. Howell had met with Lee officials and that they discussed those very things; he also confirmed Mr. Rodriguez’s point. “What they were recycling, it now goes through the incinerator.”

Ms. Howell explained: “At this time we don’t have any choices. We have to use Lee County. The agreement is with Hendry, and Lee and Hendry partner together. As you know, Lee County disposes of ash here.”

So, the staff’s approach, she said, was to figure out what amount would get the city through the next three years without tapping the reserves. “After Irma, we realized if something were to happen … any type of debris removal, which we will be responsible for, we have to pay for that up front. The county paid for it this year, but as I understand it going forward, it will be on us,” Ms. Howell said.

Mr. Rodriguez pointed out, “If we don’t do something, we’re going to find ourselves in a bad situation a couple of years from now.”

Commissioner Phillip Roland said, “The most fair thing you can do is go up on fees to cover something like this.”

Noting that the city disposes of about 10,000 tons of garbage a year, an amount that only rises, never falls, Ms. Howell said: “The last significant price increase that citizens have had happened in 2002. From 2002 until currently, the increase has been 45 cents. The tonnage rates from 2009 forward have increased 331 percent … and we have no control over that.”

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