News - March 16, 2011

Atherton: Soaring garbage rates back on council agenda

by Renee Batti

How should the Atherton City Council proceed with an inevitable garbage rate increase — earlier proposed at 63 percent to 98 percent? The council will revisit that prickly question when it meets Wednesday, March 16.

The issue was put on hold last month, when a public hearing on the proposed rate hike drew a crowd of unhappy residents, and interim City Manager John Danielson suggested that he tackle some of the many questions raised about the uncommonly high rate-hike proposal before the council votes on new rates.

Mr. Danielson will report on what he and outside analysts learned from their investigation over the last few weeks.

Also on the agenda is possible approval of a settlement agreement with Pacific Peninsula Group, a large development firm that sued the town to recover road-impact fees it paid before the town stopped charging the fee. The council will meet in closed session before the regular meeting, which begins at 7 p.m., to discuss and possibly sign off on the proposed settlement.

Rate hike

Mr. Danielson's report to the council will address, among other issues, questions pertaining to the $334,000 balance the town owes to Allied Waste, which provided garbage collection service for many years until Recology took over the contract in January.

The report offers a breakdown of costs reportedly contributing to that debt, including higher-than-expected worker's compensation and other employee costs, and higher disposal fees charged to Allied by the county.

Mr. Danielson told the Almanac that complicating the matter is that, over the years, the town "didn't raise rates consistently and concurrently with (Allied Waste's) rising expenses."

He noted that an audit of Allied Waste's books is expected to be completed by September, at which time the firm will have to justify its final charge to the town.

The proposed rate schedule would make Atherton rates the highest in the county, and the percentage of the increase would far surpass that of any other public agency in the 13-member joint powers authority that oversees garbage collection services on most of the Peninsula. The cost of service for the smallest garbage cans available — 20 gallon and 32 gallon — would increase by 63 percent, with incremental increases for larger containers of up to 98 percent.

By comparison, rates in unincorporated areas in the West Bay Sanitary District rose by 35.6 percent; Hillsborough's rates are likely to rise by 25 percent; Redwood City's rates rose by 18 percent; and Menlo Park's rates are likely to rise by 15 percent.

Mr. Danielson said that in addition to past garbage rates that didn't reflect the increasing costs of the service, Atherton is being asked to pay higher rates because of its small number of households and its lack of commercial business, which typically is charged a far higher rate than residences. Recology's fuel and employee costs to provide service in Atherton must be covered by a smaller number of customers, driving up the per-customer rate, he noted.

Lawsuit settlement?

The proposed lawsuit settlement with Pacific Peninsula Group, which was hammered out in mediation, is confidential until approved by the council, Mr. Danielson said.

If the council signs off on it in its special, closed-session meeting, which begins at 5 p.m., it will take an official vote on it during the public meeting, with members of the public given the chance to comment. There is also a public comment period at the beginning of the 5 p.m. special meeting.

Pacific Peninsula sued the town to recover nearly $300,000 in road-impact fees it claims it was charged illegally.

The council last year authorized refunds of a portion of the fees paid by builders before the town abandoned the fee in late 2009 due to controversy about its legality. Pacific Peninsula's lawsuit aimed to force the town to refund the fees it paid in their entirety.

The special council meeting begins at 5 p.m. in the Town Hall administrative office at 94 Ashfield Road in the Atherton Town Center. The regular meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Town Council Chambers, also in the town center.


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