Changes coming for collection of yard debris in Fernandina Beach

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 5, 2021


It appears that effective July 1, 2021, the City of Fernandina Beach will assume responsibility for the collection and disposal of residential yard waste, thereby hopefully eliminating existing problems with Waste Management’s inability to keep on schedule with pick-ups.  This change will come with an estimated monthly rate increase of $3.00 per customer.

One of the most annoying problems facing the City of Fernandina Beach over the past few years has been the inability of the City’s waste hauler to keep up with the yard debris generated by residential property owners.  City Commissioners receive regular complaints from citizens that yard debris often piles up for weeks before it is hauled away, resulting in unsightly piles that can attract rodents and other pests.

Waste Management — formerly, Advanced Disposal — customers point to language in the hauler’s contract with the City indicating that yard debris will be collected once a week.  What customers do not cite, however, is the portion of the contract that requires yard debris to be bagged and bundled according to certain size and weight requirements.

And therein lies the rub.

How we got here

Under the heading “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,”  Advanced Disposal decided not to enforce that portion of the contract after receiving multiple complaints and push back from customers.  Spokesperson Karlie Evatt in January 2019 told Fernandina Beach customers that while “bagging and bundling” was encouraged, it was not mandated.

And that’s where the problem gets stickier.  In developing its household costs for yard debris removal, Advanced Disposal had not factored in maintaining the practice residents relied on for years:  having a grapple truck pick up their leaves, lawn, shrub and tree cuttings, regardless of amount or size from a pile placed in the City Right-Of-Way.  Also, Advanced Disposal had not factored in the impact that elimination of the City mulch site at the Airport would have on their operations.  Under the  new contract, yard debris needed to be hauled off the island for disposal, necessitating a round trip of 2 hours per truck.  Advanced Disposal found it had neither the trucks nor the staff to adhere to the stated pick up schedule of once per week per neighborhood.

In initially approving the contract in 2018, neither City staff nor Commissioners appeared to realize that the chances for success were grim for instituting a “bundling and bagging” practice among residents who were accustomed to just dumping their leaves and other yard debris at the curb.

Contractor losing money; residents unhappy with service

In trying to find a solution to the stream of complaints about delayed yard waste collection, last summer the City undertook a non-scientific survey to determine the will of the residents.  By a 52-48 percent margin, respondents said they would prefer to pay more to maintain the traditional level of service.

Advanced Disposal was officially acquired by Waste Management in October 2020.  During ongoing review of operations, the company decided that they could not continue losing money by allowing City residents to violate contract provisions.  They  proposed solutions:  enforce the contract or raise residential prices to allow residents to continue their traditional practice of disposing of yard debris.

At the first meeting of the new FBCC in December 2020, Waste Management brought two options for resolving the problem to the FBCC’s attention:  working to the contract or raising rates to accommodate traditional practices.

And so Greg Huntington, now representing Waste Management, again presented the dilemma to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) for guidance and resolution at the FBCC’s February 2, 2021 Regular Meeting.  He said that the company would not be able to continue losing money and would be required to enforce terms of the existing contract unless another solution could be found.

A second option would be raising rates as follows:

Commissioners, with the exception of Bradley Bean, believed that to require homeowners to bag and bundle yard debris would result in more headaches for the City and its residents.  Some tree-rich neighborhoods generate significant yard debris which cannot always be bagged and bundled easily, especially by elderly residents.  Many also believed that residents would ignore the requirement and continue dumping material at the curb.  Since the contracted waste hauler would not pick that up, it would be up to the City to do so.  This would duplicate service and add extra cost to the City’s budget.

Discussion and decision

At the February 2 FBCC meeting, Huntington introduced a third option, which followed discussion with City representatives:  Waste Management would assist the City in the collection of yard waste until July 1, 2021 at which time the City would take over the collection of yard waste entirely.

Huntington said that his company would be fine with the third option because it would save them expenses and provide an increased level of service to City residents.  He said that Waste Management would still appeal for a rate increase because they have lost money for the past 2 years by not enforcing the terms of their contract.

He allowed that while there would be need for further discussion, “My goal tonight is to achieve consensus that we will move in that direction [Option 3].”

City Maintenance Manager Jeremiah Glisson explained that it could cost approximately $470K in operational and capital costs to implement Option 3 broken down as follows:

  • 2 full time employees ($140K)
  • Additional trucks, fuel and equipment (leased or purchased) ($125K)
  • Staging site at the Airport for grinding and disposing of debris ($205K)

He said that the City’s Sanitation Fund, an enterprise fund, is healthy and would be able to fund the equipment purchases, if the FBCC so desires.

Glisson said that he has begun talks with Airport Manager Nathan Coyle and the FAA about using the Airport site.  “This is where the most savings would come from,” he said, “because we would not be making 1.5 hour trips to the landfill.”  Glisson said that this model worked well when the activity was previously done in-house.

Glisson added that there would still be a rate increase for customers of approximately $3 per month, once Waste Management is totally out of the yard debris business.

Commissioner Bradley Bean

Commissioner Bradley Bean began Commission discussion on the options.   “No situation is ideal,” he said. “In my view I want to avoid expanding the size of government, and I would like to avoid rate increases where they come.  So I want to push for enforcing the bagging and bundling concept as it appears in the current contract.”

Vice Mayor Len Kreger said, “This is crazy.  This problem has been floating around forever.  My initial concerns were for the rate increase Waste Management proposed, because 40-50 percent of residents don’t generate yard waste.  I wanted to see an option where those who use the service pay for it.  Tonight we are reviewing options for correcting an error that was made in 2018.”  Kreger agreed to think about it but seemed to support Bean’s position.

Commissioner David Sturges

Commissioner David Sturges, who previously ran a lawn landscape service, disagreed.  “The streets of our City have used the current method for 35 years and it has worked,” he said.  “When you have a large pile of leaves, half the size of this room, bagging and bundling will take tons of hours, and I’m sure the citizens would not mind the $3 increase per month.  I prefer the City’s taking back the service because I still have waste sitting in front of my house, including my Christmas tree, that’s been sitting there over 2 weeks.”

Sturges said  he was not upset with Waste Management, because he realized that with the pandemic, there has been a huge increase in yard debris generated by residents who have had more time to spend on their yard maintenance.  He supported the rate increase, returning the operation to the City and restoring the mulch operation at the Airport.  He said that the City can use the mulch and allow citizens to take mulch for their own use.  “I believe that is the best option,” he said.

Commissioner Chip Ross

Commissioner Chip Ross admitted that he had voted in favor of bagging and bundling when he voted to approve the current contract, believing that such a practice would keep debris out of the street and the storm drains.  “But that was a mistake,” Ross said.  “I will take responsibility for that.  The problem today is the cost increase which I understand and the fact that the City will still be in the yard debris removal business [if we leave the task with Waste Management].  This is because what Waste Management won’t pick up (not bagged and bundled) the City will have to pick up.  Also a lot of people are just going to put the material out there anyway, and the City will have to come get it.  But if the operation stays with Waste Management, the City won’t have the revenue source to do that.”

Ross said that he seldom receives complaints about Waste Management’s trash and recycle pick-up.  “I think they do a good job,” he said.  “But for some reason the yard waste pick-up has not gone as well.  The number one complaint I used to get was trash on the beach, but now it’s yard waste.  I will vote for the City’s taking this over.  Disgruntled residents never blame Waste Management; they always blame the City when their waste is not picked up.”

Vice Mayor Len Kreger

Kreger clarified his remarks to reflect that while he liked what Bean said, he believed such a step would be a disaster.  “In the end, I am supporting returning yard waste removal to the City.  I don’t like it, but I will support it, because I think it will work,” he said.

Bean spoke again, acknowledging that he had listened to the other Commissioners’ arguments.  “I believe I was elected to stop raising rates, so that’s why I’m here,” he said.  “I believe there would be more people upset with a rate increase than they would be with bagging and bundling.  I still advocate for the first option which involves no rate increase.  I will always fight for lower taxes.”

Huntington tried to clarify Waste Management’s position.  Even though the operation would transfer to the City, there would still be a request for additional compensation to cover the work done between March and July 1.

Sturges added, “In the short term, this may not be a cheap problem to fix.  But in the long haul costs will go down after we get the equipment.”

Glisson added that the proposed cost of capital equipment has been spread over a 7-year period.  He said that he had projected “worst case” pricing.

Ross suggested that one way to defray cost would be to compost the waste, bag and sell it.

Mayor Mike Lednovich

Mayor Mike Lednovich said that he lives on Canopy Drive, where the majority of residents are over 75 years old.  “There is no way these residents are going to bag and bundle, especially when all the leaves come down,” he said.  “Large limbs come down that would require a chain saw to get to an appropriate size for Waste Management to pick up.  I support every word of what Commissioner Bean says about limited government and living within our means.  But here is the net result at least in my neighborhood.  Residents will continue to drag material to the curb and the City will have to pick it up.  We will have to pay for the yard waste disposal one way or the other.  I don’t think that bagging and bundling will work as a solution to the problem.”

What next?

Mayor Lednovich asked City Attorney Tammi Bach how the FBCC should proceed to opt for the return of the yard waste operation to the City, since action would not be taken at the current meeting.

Greg Huntington (l) and Jeremiah Glisson.

Bach recommended that the FBCC consider official action at the next meeting.  The Waste Management contract is adopted by Ordinance, so changing the contract would require two readings and a public hearing.  Adoption would probably not be possible until the first meeting in April.

The City and Waste Management will work out the details required for the transfer for first reading of the revised Ordinance on February 16.  All Commissioners except Bean were in agreement.

On behalf of Waste Management, Huntington said, “I think it’s always important to state that we do appreciate the partnership we have with the City.  We want to do what’s best for the City.  Period.  We’ll work with staff to figure it out and have something to you by February 16.”

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