City council told sanitation rate increase unavoidable in Steubenville

STEUBENVILLE — Sanitation Superintendent Bob Baird told members of Steubenville City Council Tuesday his department’s financial difficulties have nothing to do with how he’s managed it.

Baird’s frustrations boiled over as council met in committee to discuss capping the number of carts the department should empty for a single residential customer without an additional charge, an issue that took on added urgency since council also is considering eliminating commercial collections.

When the suggestion was made that they needed to do a better job running the sanitation department, Baird reminded council that sanitation rates have not been increased since 2009 and that his department had a $5 million cash reserve until council moved a big chunk of it over to shore up the city’s ailing water fund.

“To date, over $1 million of operating revenue that would have been operating revenue for the sanitation department is gone,” Baird said. “It’s supporting the water department. Let’s be clear what that was … robbing Peter to pay Paul, kicking the can down the road, a shell game, whatever you want to call it.”

Finance Director Dave Lewis last month sounded the alarm about the sanitation fund’s viability, pointing out the city’s commercial collection service is running upward of $279,000 a year in the red. If nothing changes, he figures the sanitation fund will run out of money by 2023.

The dire outlook prompted council last month to question whether it was time to do away with the commercial service altogether, a topic members revisited during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

While they’d intended to focus on deciding if the city should cap the number of carts the department will empty for a single residential customer without tacking on an additional fee, the discussion quickly turned to the commercial collection service.

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel pointed out four residential carts is the equivalent of a small commercial receptacle.

“If we let people have an unlimited number of carts with no additional charge for emptying them we could actually have an issue we don’t intend to create,” Dressel said.

Baird told Dressel that at this point, “there are not that many examples” of customers having more than three carts, and pointed out the city “is only charging $20 a month right now for trash.”

He said some of those accounts might “go commercial” if a tiered residential rate structure was implemented, prompting Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella to question the rates being charged as well as the wisdom of terminating commercial collections.

While council has the power to require all businesses and industries located inside city limits to use the city’s commercial waste hauling service, past councils have allowed business owners to contract with private hauling services.

Petrella wants the city at least explore the idea of forcing businesses now using a private hauler to sever those ties as the contracts expire before terminating commercial collections, at one point suggesting they needed to do a “better job operating” it.

“I’m going to have to respond,” Baird said. “That’s not the first time comments like that have been made.

“Sanitation’s funds supported everything we did,” Baird said, refusing to yield the floor. “The sanitation fund was the only stable fund in the city. We paid our bills, it supported every service we provided. Not only did we support ourselves, but we generated a quarter-million dollar surplus every year. That’s a successful business.”

Baird pointed out members of council have not increased rates in 10 years, asking, “What business does that?”

“The rates are what happened, the rates are the underlying problem, the rates are the issue at hand,” he said.

“It’s inevitable rates will increase, but now (that increase) must come sooner than it would have been and now it must be larger than it would have been because (council) cut way too deep when you moved money to the water fund.”

Petrella told Baird he faulted the city, not him.

“When I said ‘do a better job managing,’ I meant the city,” he said, adding he believes “it’s a mistake to get out of the commercial business.”

While there’d be an initial outlay for equipment, Petrella figures “it will pay for itself” in three years.

“The more volume you have, the cheaper the rate you get,” he said. “And, you’re right, the city has failed to enforce our own ordinance. We should be collecting (from every business within city limits.)”

Dressel, though, questioned why, if commercial hauling could be profitable, no other city in the area was providing the service.

“Why don’t they do it if it can make such a good amount of money?” he asked.

Dressel then suggested council needs to “make sure, before we decide to get rid of commercial services, that we need to get rid of (them.)”

“If we need to increase rates to make it viable, maybe we can try that for six months,” he added.

Baird told council he would manage the department in “whatever way, what level of service you decide on.”

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to get out of commercial services,” Baird said. “What I’m saying is it’s essential for there to be better understanding of what’s going on…customers that should never have been allowed to get a private hauler were allowed to. We would need more equipment, we would need to tell those customers that when their current contract is up, they need (to come back). But that doesn’t change the fact that residential rates are going to have to go up, and sooner than they would have had to.”

Baird said as it stands now, “our rates don’t support anything.” He said the department currently services about 100 commercial accounts, but there’s no way it can absorb the cost of the equipment that would be needed to handle the influx of an estimated 200 new commercial accounts.

“If we let the commercial business go, we’ll reduce costs,” Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn said, adding, “It seems to me it isn’t just a matter of a small commercial rate increase — we’re talking a very significant increase just to have it be viable.”

Dressel called another committee meeting for April 23 to continue discussion of the future of the commercial hauling service.