By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Notices mailed to more than 300,000 Hillsborough homeowners spoke of the solid waste collection and disposal rate increase sought for fiscal year 2024, which amounts to $7.06 monthly, or $84.72 annually.
Consider it a done deal, as the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners at their Aug. 16 meeting approved not only the trash increase, but also a 12 percent increase on average for residents in unincorporated Hillsborough who live on a street with lighting.
Standing alone, rate increases such as these are manageable. Put them together with rising costs of housing, healthcare, fuel, electricity, water, food, insurance, debt management and more, and it’s no wonder that a growing number of Hillsborough County residents are fearing — and reaching — a breaking point.
As one speaker said at the Aug. 16 meeting, “Don’t charge elders on social security $87 more a year for trash collection, or our kids a dollar more for lunch.”
Sentiments such as these do not fall on deaf ears in the Frederick B. Karl County Center in downtown Tampa, where commissioners at regular meetings and public hearings have been listening patiently to anxious constituents and determined county officials.
Take trash, for example.
According to Damien Tramel, the county’s director of solid waste management, his department handles more than 1.1 million tons of solid waste annually. Roughly 45 percent of waste collections end up in the county’s waste energy plant, 39 percent in a landfill and 10 percent is yard waste. Only 6 percent is recycled.
According to Tramel, county officials in 2013 agreed to collect residential solid waste for seven years with three franchise collectors. Seven years later, officials signed a “bridge contract,” and in 2021, signed two new agreements with three haulers, through a competitive bid process.
Even so, “We experienced significant increases in costs to collect solid waste,” Tramel said, noting that while rates stayed flat from 2013 to 2020, increases in 2021 and 2022 led to flat rates again in 2023, which leads to today’s situation for fiscal year 2024, and a race to manage and cover uncovered costs.
Blame the go-to culprits, “labor, equipment, fuel and other expenses,” Tramel said, “which is a higher cost than from our previous contract.”
Add to the list the demands of breakneck growth.
“We’re the fourth largest county in the state of Florida, and one of the fastest growing counties in the country,” Tramel said.
“This means, commissioners, that there is a tremendous amount of demand and pressure on the solid waste system, and that’s growing daily.”
As for the $84.72 rate increase, 78 percent, or $66, covers the collection contract, with the rest accounting for “inflation, debt and personnel [costs],” Tramel said. “So, that’s where we are today, commissioners, we are proposing a rate increase.”
The board in a 7-0 vote approved the increase, for fiscal year 2024, which starts Oct. 1, but not before Commissioner Joshua Wostal raised the possibility of charging a person with three trash cans more than a person with one. The reasoning being, he said, that with multiple trash cans, a person incurs “more of an impact on our waste collection system than the person who has one trash can and might not even be filling it up.”
Sounds logical, but therein lies the rub, as “it would take a massive evaluation to really get down to who has the second garbage can and who does not,” Tramwell said. “We don’t necessarily have that data.”
As for the speaker who raised concern for senior citizens on fixed incomes who can’t afford a rate increase, commissioner Pat Kemp inquired about county programs of assistance.
Two programs are available, said Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise. “We offer a 28.75 percent discount on disposal assessment,” she said. Moreover, “we have a hardship affordability credit, which amounts to about $60 as well,” albeit with some eligibility requirements.
For more information on the two programs, and how to apply, call 813-272-5680. Use the same number to raise service concerns.
“I hate being in this position, especially when I wasn’t here for the original contract negotiation,” Woshual said. “I know that you’re a brand new director who’s in charge of bringing this forward to us,” he told Tramel.
Nevertheless, Woshual added, “The end result is that there’s nothing more to be done, because if we don’t increase the rate . . . .”
Not even an option, not with the tremendous impact defaults would incur, county officials say.
The goal is to increase recycling, Tramel said, “which we believe is the number one way to reduce the amount of waste we dispose of in the landfill.”
Tramel spoke at the annual public hearing to set the solid waste assessment and roll for fiscal year 2024. The hearing was held Aug. 16 before the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners.