Almanac

News - May 25, 2011

Atherton council settles on trash-rate hikes

by Renee Batti

Struggling to reduce a shortfall as high as $1.3 million that the town is projected to owe for garbage collection services, the Atherton City Council last week approved garbage rate hikes ranging from 15.5 percent to 59 percent, depending on level of service.

The council took the action at its May 18 meeting after a public hearing and a less-than-rosy report on garbage collection services by Councilman Bill Widmer.

Mr. Widmer and Councilman Jerry Carlson, who served on a council subcommittee studying the garbage rate issue, recommended a rate schedule that differed from any of the three that the council had previously considered.

"No solution ... will completely address the shortfall," Mr. Widmer said. But the rates the subcommittee was proposing would be a sound middle ground that would reduce the shortfall more than rates endorsed in March, which represented a 39 percent increase for all service levels.

The subcommittee's recommendation was rejected, 3-2, with the council's first vote, with Mayor Jim Dobbie and Kathy McKeithen arguing that the rates needed to be higher to cover more of the town's costs. But after the council rejected a motion for a higher rate schedule, a third vote was taken on the Widmer/Carlson recommendation, and those rates were unanimously approved.

The new rates are expected to lower the shortfall projected if rates remain the same from $1.3 million to about $941,000.

Under the new rate schedule, effective July 15, residents using a 20-gallon garbage can will pay $20 per month, up 15.5 percent from $17.32. The cost for a 32-gallon can goes up 59 percent, from $27.69 to $44. Service for a 64-gallon barrel goes up 50 percent, from $55.38 to $83; and for a 96-gallon barrel, from $82.18 to $125, a 52 percent increase.

Residents will be charged more for multiple green waste containers. Under the original proposal, customers would have been charged $1 for each container over the first two, which are free. Under the approved schedule, customers will be charged $6 for each green waste container over two.

The new rates are considerably lower than those endorsed by the council in December, which ranged from increases of 63 percent for using the smallest can available to 98 percent for using the 96-gallon barrel. After a public outcry and the raising of many questions by residents and council members alike, the council in March endorsed more moderate increases.

The new rates may be in for another review and change in the fall. The subcommittee recommended that the town look for other adjustments to the waste collection service and consider charging customers more for green waste service.

Mr. Widmer said each green waste barrel costs $19.35 to service, and noted that Atherton generates nearly 10.5 percent of all organic tonnage collected in the jurisdictions served by the South Bayside Waste Management Authority (SBWMA), a joint powers authority representing 12 Peninsula jurisdictions, including Atherton.

Mr. Widmer and Mr. Carlson spent many hours over the last few months working with Recology, the town's new garbage collection contractor; town staff; and SBWMA.

Another key question yet to be resolved is the outstanding debt the town owes Allied Waste, which provided waste collection service until January, when Recology took over.

Allied Waste says that Atherton must pay $334,000 in "true up" costs. But questions have been raised about the debt in light of Allied Waste's assurances to the town in March 2010 that the 16.9 percent increase passed at the time would be sufficient for the company to cover its costs and make the profit agreed to in its contract with the town.

Mr. Widmer said an audit being performed by SBWMA is expected to be concluded by September, and that the debt may not be as high as earlier believed.

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