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You can’t trash city’s response to recession

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POSTED February 11, 2010 2:19 a.m.
It takes a lot of cash to get rid of our trash.

It costs thousands of dollars each day to collect, haul and bury what we toss out.

We’re generating a lot less trash, though, now that California’s runaway growth has slowed to a trickle and consumers have curbed spending binges. Recyclable commodities ranging from newsprint and glass to aluminum have plunged in value. Foreclosures and the state’s 12 percent unemployment rate have significantly increased delinquency rates on municipal garbage billings.

Cities running the gamut from Tracy to Berkeley being hit hard with revenue losses in their garbage collection operations are being forced to consider major rate hikes in the middle of The Great Recession. Berkeley is scrambling to come up with ways to cover a $4 million shortfall in their garbage operations.

That isn’t the case in Manteca. There is no need in the foreseeable future for a rate hike. In fact, rates have been stagnant for close to five years.

How did that happen?

Manteca’s solid waste collection is a sterling example of the things the city has done right over the years.

Eighteen years ago the city picked up anything you put at curbside as long as it was in a 32-gallon can or contained in a 32-gallon plastic bag. It wasn’t usual for people to have four cans and then a dozen or so bags with yard waste or the end result of spring cleaning. It was all for one basic charge.

Many cities didn’t take the state mandate seriously at first that they had to divert 50 percent of their solid waste collection from being buried in landfills by 2000. Manteca did. They implemented the green bins for wastepaper and the blue bins for cans and glass as some other cities did but quickly found resistance due to the inconvenience. They also noted that it made more lifting for garbage workers.

Manteca then started switching to a semi-automatic Toter system with the goal of 100 percent phase in to fully automatic. At the same time, they hired a recycling coordinator with marching orders to do what it takes to get people educated and hooked on the need for recycling.

The city workers became more and more efficient with garbage routes often collecting 10 percent more residences in a typical day than some of their counterparts in nearby jurisdictions. It also doesn’t hurt that Manteca is within a short drive of the Austin Road landfill.

It was all embraced as a way to save money and deliver a service while complying with state law.
Being foresighted and having dedicated and efficient workers built the base.

Manteca never penciled in significant revenue from recyclables in factoring budgets or rate increases. It wasn’t because they were acknowledging that commodities – even those that are recyclables -  go up and down. Instead, it was complying with the Manteca budgeting philosophy of always underestimating revenue.

As a result Manteca didn’t have six-figure numbers – or even five figures – of revenue from recyclables plugged into the formula for determining the garbage rate. And unlike more than a few cities, Manteca never had commercial rates subsidize residential. Everyone paid their fair share even though elected council members could have scored political points with voters in doing so.

Even so, The Great Recession should have sent Manteca down for the count. This was for the longest period part of the top area in the United States for foreclosures. Our unemployment rate is also a bit off the charts at 15 percent. This all comes at a time the state Air Resources Board is mandating clean burning diesel garbage trucks that can easily cost a city like Manteca $2 million-plus to put in place.

Manteca in early 2009 was out front again. This time it was with asking for employee concessions across all funds including enterprise accounts that are paid by user fees.

Manteca correctly assumed that a declining economy would mean less business and more delinquent accounts. By securing compensation concessions across the board even in the enterprise accounts, Manteca built in room to take financial hits whether it was from the slowdown in growth, rising fuel costs, or people walking away and not paying their bills.

At the same time, Manteca has kept programs such as the free “tie” program for up to three 32-gallon bags of trash that can be placed out with the Toter each year plus the free small bin customers can request once a year as well. The two programs were aimed to encourage people to keep yards and neighborhoods clean.

The city has set aside some funds for the conversion to cleaner trucks. They still may have to increase rates down the road for that purpose and there is always the question of where Manteca’s garbage will go when the Austin Road landfill reaches capacity.

Meanwhile, we are enjoying some of the lowest - and most stable – rates around. You can thank the hardworking men and women of the solid waste division who took cuts in compensation, the city management for responding to today’s realities instead of keeping their fingers crossed for a year or two, and the vision of city councils to look to the future and not simply try to placate constituents in the short range.
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