Highlands County garbage pickup

In this April 2018, garbage cans on West Argonaut Road in Avon Park Lakes wait for collection.

SEBRING — At Tuesday’s town hall meeting at South Florida State College, County Commissioner Don Elwell said the county garbage hauler asked about changes to the contract.

Specifically, Elwell said, Waste Connections noted that providing recycling service for the county has lost the company money given that one of the biggest markets for the product — China — no longer accepts recycling from the United States and sets standards for clean loads of material that are too high to meet from residential sources.

“A huge number of loads are spoiled,” Elwell said.

The current 10-year contract expires Sept. 30, 2026. “We have seven more years to go,” Elwell said.

The county and Waste Connections can extend the contract for 10 more years if both parties agree to the terms.

Currently, the contract charges $9.784 per month for each residential unit. The county has approximately 37,762 residential units.

Elwell said that’s a little less than $370,000 per month, or $4.3 million per year. County Engineer Clinton “Gator” Howerton Jr. confirmed that was accurate.

In 2018, Elwell said, the hauler picked up a monthly average of 2,158 tons of residential waste, 276 tons of yard waste and hauled away 428 tons of recyclable material.

According to Elwell, company officials met privately with county officials to see if the county would be interested in making changes to the current contract. County officials said no.

According to Jim Wheatley, director of regulatory affairs for Waste Connections, the company didn’t make a request of the county to alter the contract.

In essence, that’s true.

Discussions with county staff took place outside of the public forum of a Board of County Commission meeting, with no formal request or proposal made of the county commissioners.

Elwell said Tuesday that Waste Connections met with county officials on May 22 about the company’s financial losses in recycling.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg and County Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski said Wednesday that it was purely a verbal discussion.

It included Vosburg, Wheatley, Howerton and Commission Chair Jim Brooks, who also sat on the committee to negotiate the contract.

“They didn’t bring a contract modification. It was just verbal discussion,” Vosburg said. “He’s accurate in saying they didn’t hand me a piece of paper with a proposal.”

Vosburg said the meeting involved brainstorming about how the company might modify service to recycling and garbage, including a suggestion of doing away with curbside recycling, putting all refuse in the blue and green bins and having trucks pick up that garbage once a week.

On Tuesday, Elwell characterized that as trying to get around the problems with the recycling market by altering the contract.

Vosburg said the company had planned to meet again with county officials with numbers on what it would cost to revamp the system back to all garbage pickup.

However, Waste Connections did not return to county officials with additional data, and has since dropped discussions of the matter.

Vosburg said there may have been an emailed invitation to set the meeting, but the email did not have specifics in it about the topics for the meeting.

Howerton said Waste Connections is telling him they are breaking even — able to pay the bills.

When asked Tuesday if the county could discontinue recycling until the market returns, Elwell said it wouldn’t bring back two days of pickup each week.

As it is right now, many residents put the wrong items or unwashed items into the recycling bins, Elwell said.

Howerton said 80% of the recycling was clean at first. Now it’s 60-70%.

It’s a nationwide problem, and Howerton said education is key to helping that.

Right now, the company averages 52 residential complaints and seven commercial complaints per month, Elwell said.

When asked if the county will enact the fines on the company for missed trash pickups, Elwell said the company has 72 hours — three working days — to get garbage picked up after a complaint is filed.

Right now, Waste Connections is doing relatively well on picking up garbage within that time frame, he said.

Anyone who is having trouble with getting garbage picked up can fill out a complaint form online at hcbcc.net.

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