Having looked at options for addressing the costs of solid waste collection in the county for several months, the Board of County Commissioners decided Monday to let the voters decide on a direction.
During a special meeting, commissioners – Commissioner Warren Yeager was absent – approved a referendum on a one cent sales tax to fund mandatory garbage collection in county.
The referendum, commissioners decided, would be held at the next general election in the fall of 2014.
The county, administrator Don Butler said, should enter into discussions immediately with each municipality to determine their course of action.
The cities of Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka would collect a share of the one cent sales tax.
However, whether they followed the county’s lead in devoting those funds to rid the county of garbage bills remains to be seen
“It would be nice for the city of Port St. Joe and the city of Wewahitchka to be under the same umbrella as the county,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel.
The hope, Butler said after the meeting, would be for the cities to join the county as waste pickup service contracts expire over the next year which would provide a larger bidding base to aid in bringing overall prices down.
“We definitely should put the contract out for bid whether voters approve (the referendum) or not,” said Commissioner Carmen McLemore.
The motion on the referendum came after Butler had laid out the county’s options for addressing garbage collection.
Two of those options included moving to mandatory garbage pickup in unincorporated areas.
Butler said three area counties have such ordinances, Calhoun, Liberty and Wakulla.
He noted that Calhoun had a “soft” ordinance in which residents “volunteer” to be on garbage pickup. But by having the ordinance, code enforcement has the ability to step in should garbage become an issue on a property.
In Liberty, some customers are billed monthly and others quarterly while in Wakulla the annual garbage bill was added onto property tax notices.
To add the bill to the property tax Truth in Millage (TRIM) statements would require the county to complete a “Solid Waste Assessment Study” to determine who would or would not be excluded and what rates would be paid.
That study must be completed, at a cost of over $43,000, by the Dec. 31 for the county to levy the bill on TRIM notices next year.
Another con in that scenario, Butler noted, is that the garbage bill in some cases might be higher than the property tax bill.
There are 2,512 customers with garbage service in unincorporated Gulf County.
There are some 2,500-4,000 county residents who do not have garbage service.
The primary challenge for the county budget committee, which has been wrestling with the issue of a landfill that loses money and the lack of mandatory garbage pickup, was to make the collection of garbage more “efficient,” Butler said.
In addition, the goal in bargaining for a new contract supported with a one-cent sales tax would be to eliminate or greatly reduce the county’s costs for yard debris and roadside garbage pickup.
Excess revenue from the sales tax could be devoted to the landfill, Butler said.
“The only real savings to the county is to get out of the roadside pickup,” said deputy administrator Michael Hammond. “We’ve got to get out of the roadside pickup business.”
Hammond noted that inmate crews and the county limb truck bring that debris to the landfill, which does not receive tipping fees for the material.
Further, the county expense in fuel and wear-and-tear on the limb vehicle would be reduced.
McDaniel agreed that the county needs to get out of the roadside pickup business, saying limb removal had become almost “an entitlement” to county residents.
McLemore expressed dissent on any move to mandatory garbage pickup, saying it would create a hardship for many residents in his district scraping by financially.
“(Mandatory garbage pickup) is something I will not support,” McLemore said. “I do like the idea of a one cent sales tax. That might work for the county and the people I represent.
“Let the people decide. I think that’s the only way to go.”
McDaniel said while he disagreed with additional taxes, he was not in favor of strict mandatory garbage pickup as a windfall for whatever vendor the county had and said the one-cent sales tax would spread the cost around to visitor and resident alike.
“Mandatory garbage pickup makes sense for everybody,” said South Gulf County resident Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association. “Whoever makes the problem should bear a cost for pickup. If we go to mandatory it is fair.”
Commissioner Joanna Bryan dissented on the referendum because it put any decision on addressing the costs to the county off another 16 months at minimum.
“It pushes the issue down the road,” Bryan said.
She also said the impact of another penny to the sales tax could be difficult for small businesses struggling with sales to absorb and also emphasized the need to bid out garbage service when the current contract expires early next year to bring prices down.
“I would like to see better prices,” Bryan said. “I’d like to see if this went out for bid what the cost will be. That would be information we would need.”