Piling on during the pandemic?

A city of Sacramento truck picks up yard waste in Woodlake. (Photo by Foon Rhee)

Editor’s note: Sacramento County puts off a hike in garbage rates for now, listening to COVID-19 fatigued residents. The city of Sacramento is also looking at an increase.

Lots of people are in economic distress caused by COVID-19 layoffs and lockdowns.

But that isn’t stopping Sacramento solid waste officials from seeking to raise garbage rates.

On Dec. 8, county supervisors held a public hearing, the last step before deciding whether to impose a 57% rate hike in February.

Supervisors delayed a vote on the rate increase, directing county officials to find ways to reduce or put off the hike until the worst of the pandemic passes for residents.

“This is just going to hit people hard,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli.

“It’s really bleak out there,” added Supervisor Susan Peters.

On Dec. 9, a city of Sacramento advisory committee held a workshop on reconsidering rate hikes that the City Council put off in December 2019.

On Dec. 14, the city said it is putting off consideration of the increases until later in 2021.

Pandemic or not, collection of trash, recyclables and yard waste is a basic service that we all expect. And COVID-19 lockdown or not, officials say they need more money to keep that service going.

The county hasn’t raised its rates for garbage customers in unincorporated areas since July 2010. They now number about 162,000, who receive weekly pickup of garbage and every other week collection of recyclables and green waste.

Under the proposal, the rate for a household with a medium 60-gallon container would jump from $23.55 a month to $36.96 on Feb. 1. After four more annual increases, the rate would reach $43.34 a month on July 1, 2024. The total increase: 84%.

To offset the rate hikes for the poorest families, county officials are proposing to increase assistance. Now, 5,720 households get $5 a month off their bills, about a 21% savings. Under the plan, the discount would increase to $7.70 a month.

Officials also told supervisors that they will extend past the current March 31 expiration a program to waive late fees and penalties for those who don’t pay their bills.

County officials say the proposed increases are needed to cover rising labor, equipment and other costs—including a new state law requiring weekly collection of food waste with green waste starting Jan. 1—and prevent deficits in the operation of about $34 million a year.

Without more revenue, the solid waste operation will run out of cash reserves in April or May, officials told supervisors. Supervisors told officials to figure out how much they need to keep collecting garbage and where the money might come from, other than rate hikes on customers.

“Leave no stone unturned,” urged Supervisor Phil Serna.

The rate hikes would generate $162 million in new revenue over five years, for a total of $403 million, only $6 million less than projected expenditures.

Officials also say that the higher county rates would still be competitive with Davis, Folsom and Sacramento.

But some customers aren’t buying it. And in public comments sent in advance, they point out the economic calamity caused by the coronavirus: unemployment because of closed businesses, the scandalous delay in jobless benefits and a looming eviction crisis.

A North Highlands resident said that the county is “proposing another blow to the suffering Californians!” “You folks must have buried your head in the sand not to see the suffering of your constituents,” he added.

Another customer wrote: “We feel that this is a terrible year for you to raise rates in light of the COVID-19 disruption to the economy. “Please wait at least a year.”

In an eight-page objection with exhibits, a resident accuses county officials of failing its customers by waiting 10 years for a rate hike. “It’s unfair to demand” that “customers immediately assume full payments for the poor decision-making,” she wrote.

Another resident argued that “Sacramento County has neither fully explored other cost-effective alternatives nor effectively communicated or justified such extreme rate increases.”

“I am truly stunned,” a Fair Oaks woman wrote in. “I am on a fixed income, my husband passed away 2 years ago and my income has decreased. To see that you are proposing such a drastic increase is going to be hard for me, especially when I am helping some family members who have had their jobs affected by the Covid crisis. Every dollar counts. You are gouging your customers.”

Under Proposition 218, property owners can stop the rate hikes if a majority file written protests. That would mean 76,145 protests, but as of the Dec. 8 meeting, officials said only 1,767 had been received.

At City Hall, officials also warn that their solid waste operation needs more money to break even and needs to add 13 workers and 13 vehicles to keep up with new 100 accounts each month.

In December 2019, City Council members voted to raise fees for garbage collection (medium container), recycling, yard waste and street sweeping by $2.74 a month as of Jan. 1, 2020, and by another $2.96 on July 1, 2020. That amounted to a 15% increase, to a total of $42.59 per month.

The council, however, rejected the staff recommendation for further hikes of $3.19 a month starting July 1, 2021 and $3.44 on July 1, 2022. That would have meant a total 33% increase.

But city solid waste officials are mulling similar increases: $6.21 a month next July 1 and another $2.77 on July 1, 2022. Officials said that any rate hikes after that will be “modest.”

The advisory committee recommended the earlier rate hikes. Will it do so again, even during a pandemic?

And if it does, will the council go along? To help struggling families, the council voted in March to waive late payment penalties on garbage bills. But that reduced revenue by a projected $826,000 in 2020-21.

But officials say the city can’t afford to be so generous now.

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