Trash talking

County to Mayor: Kick it to the curbside!

Don Kobasky is losing sleep over recycling.

The St. Petersburg resident lives across the street from one of the city's 22 drop-off recycling centers, and from sunrise to well after sunset, he hears the crash of glass.

"There's nothing worse than working 10 to 12 hours a day and waking up at 3 a.m. to glass exploding," says Kobasky, a large, tattooed artist who inhabits an apartment across from Crescent Lake Park's recycling center. "It's enough to make your brain snap."

Kobasky doesn't know what the answer is. He's called the city's solid waste department to complain; they responded by putting up a bigger sign informing residents the center closes at 9 p.m.

"But it won't do much good," he says.

Though he's worried about the possible costs, he's open to a county proposal to fund curbside recycling in St. Pete and the rest of the county.

"It seems like a win-win for everyone," he says.

But if St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has his way, Kobasky may be hearing glass break for the foreseeable future. As the county picks apart Baker's arguments against curbside recycling, the mayor is digging his heels in.

When asked if the city is open to the county's plan, Mike Conners, the city's internal services administrator and the Baker cabinet member who has taken on the county over their proposed program, replies flatly: "At this point, no."

The curbside recycling issue has dogged Mayor Baker ever since he took office in 2001. Environmental activists have filed petition after petition. Opposition campaigns have been waged over the controversy. But St. Petersburg, the state's first "Green City" and the leading contributor of trash to the county landfill, continues to dodge the issue. City councilmembers won't broach the subject.

"There would be a fight with Mayor Baker on this one," says City Council chairman Jamie Bennett. "We could put it in the budget, and he could not staff it. There are ways he can control it."

Mayor Baker has always opposed curbside recycling for two reasons: It's not fiscally sound, and it's detrimental to the environment.

"Our position is a citywide curbside recycling program would do very little to extend the life of our landfill, but it would cost our taxpayers more than is reasonably necessary," Conners says.

Then the county offered to pay for it.

In January, county officials announced they had $100 million in their solid waste reserves, and the Board of County Commissioners proposed spending it on funding curbside recycling for the entire county. Under the draft plan, the county would initiate curbside recycling for unincorporated areas, then give money to each of the cities to fund their current recycling programs, or in St. Pete's case, create one.

"We are not telling any city what they have to do or not have to do," says Pinellas County Solid Waste Director Robert Hauser. "Each city can run their kind of recycling program and we'll fund it. We're holding a huge carrot out here."

Still, Mayor Baker won't back down. Even if the county pays for it, he will not support a curbside recycling program. Under the mayor's direction, Conners sent a 24-page letter to the Pinellas County officials and the Technical Management Committee charged with developing the county's curbside plan. He reiterated the mayor's environmental concerns.

But the county called bullshit.

In a memo to Conners and the TMC, Pinellas County's Robert Hauser called into question several of the city's statistics and environmental claims.

For example, Hauser notes, if the city is concerned about the fuel and emissions from vehicles collecting curbside recyclables, why doesn't it take into account the fuel and emissions of St. Pete residents driving to recycling facilities?

And as far as costs, Hauser points out residents already pay for drop-off recycling centers in their solid waste fee, which is already higher than any other city in the county. Why not use that money to help fund a curbside program?

Other county officials are dumbfounded by St. Pete's lack of support.

"I'm yet to fully understand the city's position," says Ken Welch, the Pinellas County commissioner who represents most of South Pinellas County including St. Petersburg. "Twenty-two other cities are doing it. Either they got it wrong or perhaps St. Pete needs to reassess."

But Mayor Baker doesn't want to simply opt out of the countywide curbside recycling proposal — he wants to squash the whole plan, preferring to use the $100 million in reserve to lower tipping fees for the city's waste trucks: in essence, lowering the cost of bringing in trash to the landfill.

"Our [taxpayers] have contributed to most of that fund balance," says Conners, "but now we're going to be penalized because we have a different belief? That's absurd."

But lowering tipping fees would invite other counties to dispose of their trash in our landfill, county officials say, shortening its life even faster.

And so the standoff continues: Baker opposing curbside recycling and the county moving forward with their plan, which they hope to present to the BOCC in July or August.

"I haven't given up trying to sell the mayor on this," says Welch, the county commissioner.

Meanwhile, Kobasky continues to rail against the recycling center near his home.

"It's a thorn in my side," he says. "I've told the solid waste department, 'How about we park this thing in front of your home?'"

A few minutes later, a Scion pulls into the recycling center across the street. Whitney Johnson, who lives about a mile away, steps out and throws a few six-packs into a large bin. The glass shatters, echoing around the block. It's the sound of St. Pete's indifference to curbside recycling.

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