Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 24, 2010

Palo Alto trash rates to rise next month

City Council adopts new rates, scraps 'hard-areas-to-serve' fees

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto residents will have to shell out more for trash collection starting next month, but they will be spared the most controversial rate hikes proposed by the city — at least for now.

After receiving more than 150 letters of protest and hearing from a dozen speakers at a public hearing, a reluctant City Council voted unanimously Monday night to increase the residential garbage-collection rate by 6 percent.

But the council dropped the highly unpopular proposals to raise the monthly rate for users of the 20-gallon "mini-cans" by 33 percent — from $15 to $20 — and to institute a monthly fee for 700 customers who live on private streets, in alleyways and in "hard-to-serve" areas.

The council adopted the rate increase as part of a package of proposals designed to close a $6.2 million deficit in the city's refuse fund. The deficit was caused in large part by the city's successful "Zero Waste" campaign, which has resulted in 74 percent of the city's waste being diverted from landfills.

The city's revenues plummeted along with its waste output as residents swapped their regular cans for the smaller and cheaper mini-cans and boosted their recycling efforts.

City Manager James Keene said the council's garbage-rate dilemma is indicative of the challenges Palo Alto is facing as it seeks to shift from a "throwaway society to a more ecological, recycling society and community."

Solid Waste Manager Rene Eyerly said Monday that the success in diverting garbage, coupled with the waste-system's cost structure, is forcing a "paradigm shift" in how customers pay for service.

In agreeing to raise garbage rates, the council nonetheless rejected — for the time being — some of the proposals offered by city staff. The city is in the midst of conducting a cost-of-service study that would analyze the city's rate structures and pave the way for a major restructuring of service fees a year from now. These could ultimately include new fees for recycling, a service the city currently provides for free.

Councilman Greg Scharff proposed passing the basic rate increases but holding off on the more controversial proposals relating to mini-cans and private streets. The rest of the council agreed.

"In the short term, I think this is a good compromise," Councilman Larry Klein said.

The council agreed to shelve the two controversial proposals and to raise the rates for both the mini-cans and the regular 32-gallon cans by 6 percent (from $15 to $15.90 for a mini-can and $31 to $32.86 for the 32-gallon) and to avoid hard-to-serve fees altogether. Commercial customers, meanwhile, will face a 9 percent rate hike in their garbage fees under the newly adopted rate schedule.

The council made its decision after about a dozen residents lambasted the proposed fee hikes, particularly on private roads. John Abraham, who lives on Ellsworth Place, a private street off Middlefield Road, pointed out that Ellsworth residents are already maintaining their own street and should not be hit with another fee. He also criticized the proposal to adopt a $5 hike for mini-cans.

"The statement, 'No good deed remains unpunished,' certainly applies to the smaller garbage cans," Abraham told the council minutes before they scrapped the proposal.

In addition to raising rates, the city plans to reduce expenses by reducing its budget for Zero Waste outreach; increasing gate fees at the local landfill at Byxbee Park; and delaying two capital projects relating to the landfill.

The new trash-collection fees will kick in Oct. 1 and remain in place until next fall, when the city plans to overhaul the rate structure.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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