Automated garbage pick-up and a change in collection rates are coming to Hillsborough County residents starting in October.
Garbage will continue to be picked up twice a week under a service option approved unanimously by county commissioners Thursday. But special trucks with robotic arms will be doing the collection instead of your friendly garbage man.
The change to automated service was the next-to-last step in an overhaul of the county's solid waste collection system that started more than a year ago. The key change was opening up the system to bidding instead of continuing to renegotiate with three companies that had been hauling garbage in the county since 1996.
The three companies — Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Services Inc. — will continue to collect garbage in the county because they submitted the lowest bids. However, their rates will be lower by about $30 a year from what they would have charged under the current contract.
That estimated $30 savings comes after households pay for two rolling carts, one for garbage and the other for recyclables. The carts are estimated to cost $50 apiece and customers will pay for them over a seven-year period with a yearly surcharge of $16.80.
And the savings will likely be reduced by an increase in so-called "disposal" fees that, in addition to the cost of transporting and burning waste, include debt service on county utility bonds. The current $9 million annual debt service on the $100 million bond package is scheduled to increase to $11.1 million in two years.
The commissioners' unanimous vote to automate garbage pickup came despite informal polls and a telephone survey that showed 62 percent of county residents favored keeping twice-a-week, manual collection.
Commissioners acknowledged the difficulty of changing a decades-old system, but said the advantages in cost savings, environmental impacts and safety for garbage collectors are too significant to ignore.
"I think there are great savings to be realized by citizens and this county by going fully automation," Commissioner Kevin Beckner said. "I also realize any type of transition you go through, any type of major change … once you start making changes to that basic service, how difficult change can be."
Mitch Kessler, a private consultant who helped the county develop the bidding process, said 7 million Floridians are served by automated collection systems, including the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, and Miami-Dade and Polk counties.
Common complaints about automated systems, such as the size of the typical 95 gallon bins, have been overcome, Kessler said. "All those communities have been able to do automation and deal with all the issues citizens have addressed. They can all be overcome," he said.
One of the few concerns expressed by commissioners was that automation might cost jobs. Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Les Miller asked County Administrator Mike Merrill to see what could be done for workers who are laid off, including job counseling.
In addition to saving residents money on their garbage bills, the bidding process will result in the county making money on recycling for the first time.
The companies that bid on garbage collection also had to make separate bids on recyclables. When the winning companies sell the recyclables they collect, they will have to pay a percentage back to the county, a sum estimated at between $1 million and $2 million a year.
Kessler said that recycling tends to increase when cities and counties change to automated systems, so the county's revenue stream will likely grow, offsetting the need to increase rates in the future.
Another benefit derived from the bidding process was that the county will now be able to control the waste stream to make sure it all comes to the county incinerator. Under the prior system, garbage from commercial companies often went to landfills or incinerators outside the county, said county Utilities Director John Lyons.
Now, commercial trash receptacles will be fitted with transmitters so the county can make sure the waste goes to the county's waste-to-energy plant, or to a recycling center.
Controlling the waste stream is important because the county has a contract with Covanta, the company that runs the waste-to-energy plant, to dump at least 546,000 tons there a year. If the tonnage is under that, the county is penalized.
The utility department also makes $16 million a year from electricity generated by the plant so it can't afford "seepage" from the waste stream, Lyons said.
Higginbotham, one of the first commissioners to push for bidding out garbage service, said he was pleased with the final results.
"Today, this is one of my biggest victories as a commissioner," he said. "I'm proud of the board and everyone else that contributed to this."