Tampa city council approves garbage fee increase
TAMPA - Tampa residents soon will pay more for garbage collection. The city council approved an increase in fees by 5-2 Thursday morning, despite opposition from residents and businesses. Council members Frank Reddick and Mary Mulhern opposed the fee increases, which would begin April 1 and raise customers' monthly bills by 15 percent. Reddick said he couldn't approve the change knowing that it meant putting some residents in even more financial hardship."We are going to put a tremendous financial burden on a lot of people in this community," Reddick said. "If they pay these increases, then their phone gets cut off, or they live in the dark." The city's solid waste department is one of several stand-alone enterprise funds the city runs. Others include the water and sewer systems. The solid waste system pays about $14 million a year on debt related to the McKay Bay incinerator. The solid waste system still owes $109 million on the incinerator. Until Thursday's vote, the city hadn't raised trash rates since 2005. That, combined with the falling volume of garbage, put the solid waste department in increasingly tight financial straits. Last year, the department used a third of its $15 million reserves to balance its budget.That kind of behavior puts the department at risk of defaulting on its bonds. Before the vote, city finance chief Sonya Little reminded council members that their 82,500 trash customers weren't the only people watching the council's action on trash rates. Rating agencies have been waiting since May to review the city's solid waste finances, Little said. Bond rating agency Moody's wants to meet with the city March 1 to discuss the debt, she said. "This is serious," Little said. "It's huge. It goes beyond the solid waste system." A default by the solid waste department would ripple across the city, making it harder to borrow or many other purposes, she said. The proposed fee increases, which will continue through 2015, amounted to the "absolute minimum" the solid waste system needed to cover its debt and rebuild its reserves, Little said. City residents urged council members to find another way – privatization, perhaps. Hillsborough County runs a privatized trash system based on haulers paying for the right to operate within specific geographic boundaries. County trash customers, including city residents north of Fowler Avenue, pay an annual assessment on their property-tax bills to cover the cost. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has said he opposes privatization in part because it can be difficult and expensive to muster such a system after a natural disaster or following a major event like Gasparilla. Council member Mike Suarez noted Thursday that privatizing the city's trash system – in part by having a hauler take on the city's debt – wouldn't make the need for higher rates go away. "We have inherited something we did not create," Suarez said.
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