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'Rogue' garbage haulers cause stink
The dispute threatens a deal that curbs some home pickup rates.
By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2007
TAMPA - A garbage dispute at Hillsborough County Center is threatening to become a foul mess for residents who pay for curbside pickup.
At stake could be the relatively low rates paid by residents in unincorporated Hillsborough for garbage pickup outside their homes.
At least that's what the companies hired by the county to haul residential garbage say. And some county officials think they mean business.
After months of legal action and tense negotiations, the dispute lands in commissioners' laps Nov. 7. They face few easy choices and pressure to resolve the issue sooner rather than later.
"Like it or not, if things go the way they are, every homeowner is going to face a significant increase for the service," said commission Chairman Jim Norman.
The fracas has little to do with residential garbage service -- at least not directly. It involves who can remove debris from demolition and construction sites.
Residential haulers say they have exclusive rights to this particular branch of the garbage waste stream as a tradeoff for low household garbage rates. They want the county to crack down on companies they call "rogue haulers" who have made a cottage industry of dipping into that stream.
But doing so may put those companies out of work, from mom-and-pop operations to a handful of multimillion-dollar businesses, says a lawyer hired to represent them. The owners of some of those companies say they've operated for years, believing they had every right to do so.
"I'm concerned that we are taking steps that are going to put small businesses, men and women, out of business," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has led the charge on their behalf.
The county deal
Hillsborough County contracts with three companies to pick up and haul away residential garbage twice a week in unincorporated areas, each in its own geographic zone of the county. The companies are Waste Management of Tampa, Waste Services of Florida and Republic Services of Florida.
The deal works this way: The companies charge comparatively low rates for garbage pickup -- almost half the rate charged to residents in Tampa. In exchange, they get exclusive rights to compete among themselves for commercial garbage work throughout the unincorporated county.
Under contracts with the county, commercial garbage is defined to include debris at construction sites. And the county is supposed to keep offenders from muscling in on the business.
But the franchise companies say they are losing millions annually to businesses hauling construction debris. Those companies don't have to provide cut-rate residential service and therefore can charge less for debris removal.
The franchise haulers say that is a breach of contract. Ultimately, they say, it could lead to reopening the 11-year-old contracts and possibly raising residential rates.
"That is real," said Steve Anderson, an attorney for Waste Service. "The possibility of rates for residential pickup dramatically increasing if these rogues have their way is very real."
Making their case
The franchise haulers have been telling residents as much in fliers and postcards mailed to homes.
The issue came to a boil recently when Creative Concrete sued the county after being cited for illegal operations. The company claimed a county ordinance was vague on what is considered commercial garbage.
A Circuit Court judge ruled in Creative Concrete's favor, saying it is not clear in the ordinance that removing debris from new home construction sites is commercial work.
Bill Taylor, an attorney for Creative Concrete as well as the recently formed Central Florida Haulers' Association, says the fact that so many of these companies exist shows as much.
"The proof in the pudding is that 20 years it's been going along that way," Taylor said. "During that 20-plus years, you had many, many companies getting into the business, making a living for their families and believing it was not any violation of the law."
After the lawsuit, county lawyers asked commissioners to make the law more explicit. Hundreds of people showed up for a hearing in June, saying that they are in the hauling business and that they were about to be unemployed.
So commissioners ordered negotiations.
The law has always allowed so-called self-haulers, people who remove their own trash from work sites. They include roofers who remove shingles and people hired to tear out a shed or carry away a dead refrigerator.
The franchise haulers think these were among many of the folks who showed up for the hearing, stirred up by larger, illegal operators.
Nevertheless, they have agreed to what they characterize as concessions, allowing people with trailers no bigger than 16 cubic yards to haul residential construction waste. They can't use Dumpsters or drop off large metal containers, which are commonly used at construction sites.
"The concessions that we have made are specifically concessions toward the mom-and-pops, the small haulers," said Rick Kania, senior district manager for Waste Management of Florida. "The midsized haulers have corralled and utilized these mom and pops for their argument."
Bob Farrell, owner of Big Bob's Haulin' Jobs Inc., who showed up for the June hearing and has participated in negotiations since, said the wording needs tweaking, but his business would survive.
But he and Taylor say many others will still have to fold their companies or move to another county that allows open competition for construction debris removal.
The county has appealed the judge's ruling. Norman, the commission chairman, says commissioners need to fix their ordinance before an appeals court rules.
If the county wins the appeal, the franchise haulers are likely to withdraw what concessions they've made, and more people will lose their jobs. If the county loses, those franchise haulers may sue the county for breach of contract, to recoup money lost or raise residential rates.
"We've got to bring this thing in for a landing," Norman said.