Palo Alto trash rates face years of hikes | April 1, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 1, 2011

Palo Alto trash rates face years of hikes

New study shows costs of residential garbage service far exceed what residents pay for it

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto residents could soon be asked to pay for recycling and see their garbage rates soar by nearly 80 percent in the coming years as part of the city's effort to bring fairness and stability to its trash-collection service.

The city's Refuse Fund has been bleeding money in recent years thanks to a combination of long-term landfill contracts and aggressive conservation efforts that have taken a hit out of the city's bottom line. Palo Alto's aggressive "zero waste" program, which seeks to reduce the amount of local garbage heading to landfills, has been wildly successful on the environmental front but completely unsustainable when it comes to finances.

The city offers residential recycling services for free. As residents continue to switch to smaller (and cheaper) trash cans and recycle more of their waste, the city's revenues plummet.

As a result, the Refuse Fund faced a $6.7 million deficit last year, prompting the City Council to raise residential rates by 6 percent and commercial rates by 9 percent in October. The council narrowed the gap further by reducing its Zero Waste budget and delivering more trash to the local landfill with the goal of closing it sooner.

Now, city officials are looking for grander changes. Next Tuesday night, the City Council Finance Committee will get a look at the early results of a "cost of service" study for the Refuse Fund — a study that could have a profound effect on the future of the local garbage service. Its early findings show that the city's cost of providing residential service exceeds its revenues from these services by 79 percent. The city is projected to spend about $17.7 million on residential service but collect only $9.9 million in revenues.

Meanwhile, commercial customers have been paying more than their fair share of the costs. Palo Alto is projected to collect about 42 percent more in revenues from commercial customers than it expects to spend on these customers. Its expenses for commercial customers in the current fiscal year are estimated at $12.1 million, while revenues are projected at $20.7 million.

Phil Bobel, the city's interim assistant director for Public Works, wrote in a report that it will take several years to address this discrepancy. Staff is proposing that the city achieve "full parity" among ratepayer categories within the next five to 10 years.

"This comparison demonstrates that an estimated 79 percent increase in residential rates would be needed to immediately achieve full parity among these categories of rate payers," Bobel wrote. "Staff concludes that such change cannot be made in the near term and that a long-term strategy will be needed to correct the causes of all the problems identified above."

For ratepayers, this means several years of rising rates. Staff is proposing that the city maintain last October's rate increase and supplement it with a "modest increase" above that.

While the need for financial stability is the primary driver for these changes, state law is providing its own incentives. Proposition 218 requires that a city's water, wastewater and refuse rates reflect the costs of providing the services.

"Right now, our refuse rate is artificially low," Interim Public Works Director Mike Sartor told the Weekly.

"What we're hearing from our attorneys is we need to be in compliance, but we have some ability to do it over time," Sartor said.

The city currently charges residents $15.90 for a 20-gallon can and $32.86 for a 32-gallon one. These rates are already among the highest in the immediate region. Mountain View and Menlo Park residential customers pay $18.95 and $21.67 for 32-gallon cans, respectively, while Los Altos residents pay $28.11 (although Los Altos also charges a relatively steep $26.11 for the 20-gallon can).

On the upper end are Atherton and Los Altos Hills, which charge residents $34.65 and $38.46 for 32-gallon cans.

Public Works staff also plans to add $48,000 to its consultant's contract to refine the city's forecasting model, an effort that's expected to be completed in November. Staff hopes to use the new model to revamp the refuse-rate structure in July 2012.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2011 at 8:04 am

This is crazy. We are already more expensive than surrounding cities and we have no choice. My sister is able to choose between one of three different service providers in her city, they have different colored bins and come on different days, and competition keeps costs low.

We should at least be able to share a pick up with a neighbor, cancel service on weeks we are on vacation, or opt to have alternate week service. As it is, they can charge what they like and we have no say in the matter.

Not sure why I have been so diligent in recycling if this is what it has brought me!

Posted by Gosh Golly, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2011 at 8:16 am

Gee Whiz... What a great bunch of consultants, managers, and leaders we have in City Ha{ll / City Council....

Green as in Green Compost or Green as in GREEN BILE...

When we learn the the problems in our city our based on the ways we have been thinking and acting.... Not the City Employees, local workers and unions...

We could have chosen to have fully funded pension programs {New York State does!}.

We could have chosen to create a fee structure where companies like Facebook, Venture Capitalists, and Intellectual companies and lawyers coming to town would help generate fees that support our city...

Perhaps it would be easier to sell my house and move to Mountain View.

Thanks again Keane and Company!

Posted by paresident, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 31, 2011 at 8:58 am

I notice the story tells us "Palo Alto's aggressive "zero waste" program, which seeks to reduce the amount of local garbage heading to landfills, has been wildly successful on the environmental front" although it was just a short while ago Utilities was proposing to investigate our garbage to go to "zero". That's what we get for being good recyclers: more prodding, more scrutiny and scolding, and higher fees to boot.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2011 at 9:01 am

"We could have chosen to create a fee structure where companies like Facebook, Venture Capitalists, and Intellectual companies and lawyers coming to town would help generate fees that support our city..."

We did. But that isn't legal under Prop 218.

Posted by No waste, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2011 at 10:30 am

Having moved here from a city that has bi-weekly pick-up, I have kept the habit of putting out my bins every other week. Weekly pick-up is not necessary. That was true even when there were four people in the house. Why is bi-weekly pick-up not a consideration?

Posted by RefuseFuture, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 31, 2011 at 10:32 am

Our dump is an incredible resource and when we close it we will be up for being extorted by by anyone who will take garbage for us, which will suck as much money as possible leaving us with no real value for it other than not drowning in our own trash.

Whatever we do we ought to keep that dump open, and of course recycle as much as possible.

Our city is just like a microcosm of the larger corporate economy, whatever generates the most capital - not what makes the most sense given human and environmental priorities. Before it was taken over by business people or forsaken by the citizens Palo Alto used to know how to run their city pretty well. Whatever serves the needs of big money, or the environmental mafia and takes the most money from people so we keep the riffraff out is what we get.

Posted by Sally, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 31, 2011 at 10:32 am

ENOUGH! Where's the breaks when we DON'T have any garbage? Half the time we've been so good that even with our SMALL can we have NO garbage each week??

This city is getting dumber by the day.

Posted by Real American, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 31, 2011 at 10:32 am

If recycling EVERYTHING was an efficient use of resources, they would pay you for your recycling. But it's not efficient, so you'll have to pay them.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 31, 2011 at 10:57 am

I want to know where the costs are coming from. If they have missed a 79% cost difference the management is totally incompetent and should be replaced. I want to see a complete breakdown of costs for the entire department, including salaries, contracts, overhead. The City of Palo Alto is so poorly run financially we are bankrupt. It is time for a change.

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2011 at 11:01 am

This city is so screwed up. First they screw us on water rates. Now it's an 80% (EIGHT PERCENT!!!) increase for garbage.

And of course, hiring more "consultants" and merrily handing out more employee benefits (read: unfunded mandates).

Looks like it's going to get much worse before we reboot the thaing.

Posted by Concerned Retiree, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2011 at 11:12 am

Bottom line is I will look at the bottom line. It might be cheaper for someone living by himself like me to simply take his own garbage and recycling to the dump (or my kids' homes in nearby towns with cheaper services) once a week as was done in the past. I still don't even get the ban on plastic bags -- why don't we just insist on ones which are biodegradable? Now, I have to go buy them or shop outside of Palo Alto every once in a while to get my trashcan liners.

And more consultants??? Why don't we give first preference in hiring to Palo Alto residents?

As with my car and my Palo Alto utility bill, I will switch to the green way when it becomes cost effective.

Posted by Mollie, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2011 at 11:15 am

Maybe our idiotic utilities department wouldn't have such a huge deficit if they cut out the stupid mailings. How much does it cost them to produce all those booklets and usage comparisons? Maybe they could clean out our "personal storm sewers" and get rid of the constant puddle at the end of my driveway?

But NO. That would be doing something useful and we can't have that.

Posted by Confused, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 31, 2011 at 11:43 am

I'm not quite sure I understand what everyone is so angry about. It doesn't cost the city any less to pick up recycling than it does regular trash. When we moved to this town we thought it was bizarre that they didn't charge for recycling! It makes no sense and is clearly unsustainable. We are producing trash - whether it is recyclable or not - why would we not have to pay for them to come and take it away?
Yes, maybe every other week makes sense. Maybe sharing a pail with your neighbor makes sense. Seems those could be looked into.
But paying for what a company comes to your curb to collect and carts away makes total sense, too.
I'm glad the costs will be more logical now.

Posted by resident, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 31, 2011 at 12:27 pm

In an earlier story, we were losing money because we weren't sending enough garbage to out of town sites that we had contracts with. I'd like to hear the full complete story all at once.

If that is still true I think we should fill up trucks with stuff from our dump and send it to the contracted sites until the contracts are up, thereby extending the lifespan of our dump.

Any way you look at this...All of this STINKS!

Posted by Lois, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2011 at 12:52 pm

The problem is our City signed these long term landfill contracts well before they began the recycling program. What this article does not explain clearly is that we are simply not sending enough garbage to the landfill to fulfill the contract.

We must, therefore, pay for much more space in the landfill than we're actually using, and we can't get out of it. At the same time the City is paying to have our recycled material sorted and distributed.

The answer to this problem is obvious. Until our long term landfill contracts for dumping garbage expires; fulfill these contracts by sending our recycled material to the dump. And save money by not having our recycled material sorted and distributed.

I realize this solution probably goes against all the good intentions of most Palo Altans, but it is our City who signed the landfill contracts eons ago. I'm all for saving money any way we can.

Posted by dsfna member, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2011 at 12:59 pm

As I read these comments, except for one, people are so frustrated and angry at the way the city elected officials and high level employees are managing and administrating city business - proof is in the result that "they" may or may not get the message or if they even care.

In direct contradiction with the assumption - many Palo Alto residents (including seniors) are NOT bottomless pits to keep throwing money called fees, taxes, surcharges, parcel tax - etc. It is time for this gov't to recognize while many of us are fortunate to live here - we have to watch each dollar.

I either put out almost empty trash cans or once/month and pay about 80% more for this privilege ....... .

Posted by downtown north, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 31, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I think instead of everyone typing their comments here they should write to the city council. There are a lot of good ideas and I truly don't think the city council reads these comments. Maybe they should but I don't think so. Maybe we should of kept Pasco Sam there rates didn't seem to rise every year

Posted by Sigh, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 31, 2011 at 3:39 pm

When we take care of our own money, we try to find ways to reduce our expenses; when the people in the city departments take care of our money, they try to find ways to extract more from out pockets.

Posted by Super, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 31, 2011 at 5:53 pm

This is disappointing. It is already difficult to live in Palo Alto unless you make a huge salary. Big City Gov't needs to get their act together and make decisions that benefit their citizens, not penalize them.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2011 at 6:11 pm

"Proposition 218 requires that a city's water, wastewater and refuse rates reflect the costs of providing the services."

OK, I get that.

Then why not adopt plasma arc as a solution to all of the stated problems? Plasma arc companies are willing to pay us for our garbage, because plasma arc is voracious, and wants to be fed...and it wants to clean up our historical environmental messes. We CAN reclaim Byxbee Park as a natural environment and, at the same time REDUCE our garbage rates. And this can be done with a REDUCED greenhouse gas profile.

We can have a very satisfactory solution to our own waste problem, without sending it downstream to poor peoples' backyards, especially those of color, it can cost us much less than we are currently paying and it is "green".

Yet, we dither with grandiose schemes of anaerobic digestion and "zero waste" mania.

Posted by Bryan Long, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 1, 2011 at 8:15 am

I get that we have shifted a lot from trash to recycling, but so have other cities. Did we get trapped by long-term contracts and they didn't? If so, why? Just bad timing? By the article above, other cities charge more than us for the small cans but generally less for the large cans. Maybe we have too much differential between small and large. It still seems like I see many more large cans than small, but maybe we have a much higher percentage of small cans?

All the outrage seems rather self-righteous, however. Our City Council is elected, and oversight committees exist for all the utilities. Rather than get so angry, it is possible to get involved, you know. Help make those decisions.

Posted by Deborah, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 1, 2011 at 8:48 am

It simply amazes me that when we are doing what we are suppose to be doing, such as recycling more and less garbage, we are penalized. This is not fair. Here is a City that has no direction because they do not follow things through. They have a project but do not follow through to the end of the project to see the outcome.

Also, why do we need so many consultants? There are people who work for the City of Palo Alto who make six figures and they are not smart enough to be a consultant to the City? If not, then they should get a pay cut!

I am sick and tired of paying more here and there. It is going to come to a point where people cannot afford to live here anymore and what will the City do then?

Posted by paresident, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 1, 2011 at 9:13 am

Bryan your suggestion that if we became involved at an earlier stage this wouldn't be happening. But I only find out about these decisions long after they are made. We have elected officials because we are all busy working and cannot make all these decisions (we need representative govt). But, when they suddenly tell us something drastic, like garbage rates have to go up 80%, I do think being upset/concerned is definitely justified. This is also the first time I've heard about us not fulfilling our landfill contracts made long ago. I think Lois has a point and maybe we should make use of them even if it doesn't match our ideal at this time. But the bigger problem to me is that our Utilities seem to be malfunctioning.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 1, 2011 at 11:18 am

Just wish this was an Aprils Fools joke too.

Posted by Oxymoron, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Apr 1, 2011 at 11:43 am

This seems absolutely absurd! I have an idea. At the next election, the candidate(s) receiving the least amount of votes gets elected! I'd like to hear your ideas of absurdity, and not because it's April Fool's but because the the whole situation is ridiculous. It's time to review the whole Utilities fiasco!

Posted by Jessica, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm

In the meantime, the Palo Alto Art Center closes Monday for $7.9 million makeover :)

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm

"It simply amazes me that when we are doing what we are suppose to be doing, such as recycling more and less garbage, we are penalized. This is not fair"



Why aren't we doing what we should be doing, going ahead? We seem to be saddled with an absurd construct, anaerobic digestion (AD). Why is this our putative constructed future? Answer: It is forced upon us by 'zero waste' fanatics. We deserve much better.

AD is a very inefficient industrial solution to our own waste stream. It is almost absurd that it has gotten so much purchase in Palo Alto. It, somehow, got labeled as "green", but it is not. It does not solve our normal waste stream problem and it does not solve the toxics issues. AD takes up a relatively large chunk of our future 'park' (dump) land, yet it produces so little. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Plasma arc can solve most of these issues AND save us a lot of money.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Why do we keep electing the same type of mindsets who are so willing to spend everyone else's money?

California truly is becoming TAX HELL. The middle class is being punished by the "good ideas" of men and women who never run out of perpetual ideas.

Pretty soon, it will be confined to the "haves" and the "have nots" -- just the rich and the poor.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 3, 2011 at 5:28 pm

It already is the land of the Haves and the Have Nots.
Web Link

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%

Americans have been watching protests against oppressive regimes that concentrate massive wealth in the hands of an elite few. Yet in our own democracy, 1 percent of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Craig mentioned that Prop 218 requires that services reflect the cost of providing.

Did the creators of that bill expect the Cities to do nothing to CONTROL those costs?
Did we, the voters stupidly give the Cities a Blank Check to SPEND as much as they want of our money, knowing that we MUST pay?
Except for Winter (compostable), most of my containers could wait a extra week to be picked up. I also sweep the street in front of my house regularly, but I still contribute :^) to city-wide street services.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

@ pat:

I don't think that the rich are necessarily "taking" the nation's income. Rather, they are earning it as we GIVE it to them.

I am definitely a capitalist in favor of a free market.

My concern is more about how the State of California and local leaders can continuously come up with "good ideas" that will cost the rest of us. California is already overtaxed. Wwayyyyyy too much of our income is going to stupid ideas and entitlement programs.

Yes, I care about the poor. After all, we aren't "well off" by even national standards.

Now, we ALL are forced to pay for these "good ideas" at a time when middle class families cannot afford it. Our family lives from paycheck-to-paycheck with nothing in savings. My husband and I are both educated (with graduate level degrees). Yet our family income is very limited. With high rent, expensive products, astronomical CA/Federal tax rates, high sales tax, expensive FEES for everything (more than most other states) -- it is getting ridiculous.

However, California society has gotten to the point where the greatest beneficiaries of programs are the WEALTHY (but only because they can afford it), the VERY POOR (who take take take from our tax dollar-funded entitlement programs), and SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS (who are pushing their goals via expensive local and state programs upon us).

Why do we keep electing individuals who continue to fleece our paychecks for things that THEY want to accomplish?

Posted by Charlie, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 5, 2011 at 2:48 pm

It's the democracy that fails the system and not capitalism.

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