With the recently passed climate change adaptation and action plan hanging over their heads, Flagstaff City Council directed staff to draft an ordinance increasing fees for solid waste pickup for the first time in 10 years.
Many on the council expressed frustration over how much they felt they must increase the rates to cover the projects staff say are either needed to prepare for the future of the landfill or to bring the city in line with the goals of the climate change plan.
“I too cannot even wrap my mind around why we would work so hard on a climate action plan and put things in place and then make decisions that would take that all away for our grandchildren,” vice mayor Jamie Whelan said.
And Mayor Coral Evans reminded Council that the city was playing catch-up with rate increases.
“I understand all the frustration that I think we hear here at the dais in regards to this. We really should have raised the rates years ago, but I know when I came in in 2008, we were in the middle of a recession,” Evans said. “Then, over the years, we have not had the ability to raise the rates, [often] because there was not the political will to do so.”
Under the council’s direction, solid waste fees could increase 7.5 percent annually for five years. That rate increase would only affect residents, however, with businesses and commercial entities only having their rates increased by 3 percent the first year. There would be no subsequent rate increases after that.
This is because in 2016, the state deregulated commercial waste, meaning businesses can now pay for a third party to pick up their trash and recycling, when before, the city had no competition in that arena. And that has eaten into some of their revenue, said Todd Hanson, the solid waste section director.
This is the reason for the smaller rate increase when it comes to waste pick-up for commercial entities, Hanson said, as the city must remain competitive with private waste collection companies or risk losing the majority of their customers.
In dollars and cents, the 7.5 percent annual increase would mean residential rates increasing from the current $17.73 to $25.45 over the next five years. The 3 percent increase for commercial entities would constitute a $2.21 increase in the rate for trash and a $1.38 increase for recycling pick-up.
This increased rate would allow the city to invest in the majority of the solid waste infrastructure staff believes is necessary, including replacing the city’s aging fleet of solid waste collection vehicles, and is generally in line with the recently passed climate change adaptation plan.
Some of these projects include infrastructure to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted by the landfill and for water infrastructure that could allow for future composting operations.
That was not the only option, however.
Council also considered two lesser rate increases of 5 and 3 percent annually, each for five years. The commercial rate would have kept its one-time hike in either scenario.
The 5 percent increase would have eventually raised rates to $22.64 after five years while the 3 percent option would have brought it to $20.55.
But these two options would generate far less funding for the landfill and thus eliminate the possibility of projects that bring the city in line with the climate change plan but also those that simply prepare for the future of the landfill.
For example, the 3 percent increase would not provide money to construct a new landfill cell just east of the current site, instead forcing the city to use its emergency cell. The emergency cell would otherwise be used in the case of a disaster that may cause a large amount of trash or rubble. Both the 7.5 and 5 percent options would allow for the construction of the new cell.
And given the waste-related infrastructure Council wants to complete, a majority felt, if not begrudgingly, the 7.5 percent option was best.
“I think that in the scheme of things, when you look at the actual rate increase, [it’s not as large as it may seem],” Councilmember Celia Barotz said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t matter -- of course it matters -- but what we’re going to be able to accomplish with it, I think, is critical and everything takes money.”
Whelan somewhat disagreed.
“I think it is quite a bit of money to ask of [residents], from $19 up to $25 in five years,” Whelan said. She added, however, that she felt her hands were tied if she wanted to support the infrastructure improvements and implementation of the climate change plan.
And Councilmember Scott Overton pointed to the debate over waste fees as an example of how difficult implementing the climate plan may be.
“This is one of the cautions I talked about with the climate action plan just last week,” Overton said. “If we’re going to go down the road of implementing all of the ideas within that document, if we’re going to take that on, it’s going to cost money to the citizens.”
Overton said he believed the 5 percent or 3 percent plans were reasonable.
In a statement to the Sun, the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce also expressed concern over the potential fee increases.
“We understand the city’s landfill has mitigation needs; however, maybe the mayor and council could consider general fund monies for landfill capital improvements, including the $3 million requested for the landfill road improvement, reducing the proposed fee increase,” the Chamber’s statement read.