The city is one step closer to the implementation of a monthly flat fee to cover solid waste pickup expenses.

The Committee of the Whole voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with a plan, authored by At Large Councilman  John Rowland, that would add a flat fee of $5.25 to the monthly bills of city trash pick-up customers.

Non-customers of the city’s trash pickup service would not be subject to a fee increase. If approved by the City Council, the flat fee will be in effect beginning May 1. The resolution establishing the fee will also set a re-evaluation date of Nov. 1.

The measure was necessary, supporters said, to keep a solid waste fund deficit from ballooning further. If left unchecked, the deficit would swell to around $600,000 by the end of the fiscal year, according to statements made by Finance Director Jessica Kinser earlier in the year.

Since the automated trash pick-up system and billing structure were approved last fall, the city has not collected monthly solid waste charges, outside of a $9.25 waste fee paid by all households throughout the city, which helps cover landfill costs.

The new fee should prevent the worsening of the solid waste fund deficit, but is not designed to make up for lost revenue.

“We’re just going to move ahead from here, and I think people need to know that,” Third Ward Councilwoman Bev Hermann said.

The addition of that flat fee would buy time for city officials to sort out a myriad of billing issues that have arisen since the switch to the automated trash pick-up service. Microchip-embedded trash carts were delivered to incorrect addresses, the scanning hardware on the trucks has proven to be problematic, and the city’s billing software has had to be built from scratch to accommodate the “usage-based pay” model approved by the City Council when the automated service was adopted.

The previous sticker-based system was abandoned in favor of the new system. This contributed to the deficit, but is not the sole cause, according to city officials.

“Actually, our sticker system, we were losing money on that,” Councilwoman At Large Jennifer Graf said. “...We were going to have to change anyway.”

Rowland said at the March 27 meeting of the City Services Committee that the intention of his proposal was not to create a permanent fee, but to allow enough time for a long-term fix. If the billing issues are sorted out sooner, City Administrator Jeff Horne said that the City Council could opt to enact a long-term solution sooner.

That is actually a legitimate possibility, Horne said, as he and Mayor Mark Vulich had a “pretty positive” meeting with the vendors of the automated trash pickup system Monday. That meeting revealed that with improved communication, the problems facing solid waste billing may not be insurmountable.

“I think that we’re on the right track after yesterday’s meeting,” Horne said.

Horne said the hiring of a project manager, a provision of Rowland’s proposal, may not be necessary. Some issues can be sorted out by the vendors and city staff, and Horne said that some tech-savvy citizens have even volunteered their time and experience.  

Also introduced at Tuesday’s meeting was an ordinance amendment that would create a sticker system for overflowing trash cans. Discussion at the March 27 City Services Committee meeting revealed that several city solid waste customers were overfilling their trash carts.

This amendment would require citizens with overfilled trash cans to purchase a $5 sticker from city hall that would be placed on the excess garbage bags, assuming the bags are placed in or on the carts. Bags left on the ground would not be picked up.

City Attorney Jeff Farwell said that this measure could “prod” customers into not overfilling their carts, or purchasing an additional cart from city hall.  

Second Ward Councilwoman Julie Allesee and Fourth Ward Councilman Paul Gassman were absent from the special session of the Committee of the Whole, which was held at 1:30 p.m. Typically, Committee of the Whole meetings follow City Council meetings every other Tuesday night.

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