The Great Trash Debacle

Can Coral Gables Continue to Provide Premium Residential Trash Collection?

In Coral Gables, no hot-button issue glows hotter than that of residential trash and garbage collection and how to pay for it. And with deficits rising, the heat is on.

Faced with a $2.5 million shortfall for its annual $11.9 million budget to provide residential services, the city’s sanitation department has come under increasing pressure to raise rates – or to cut costs. In July, the city commission voted to extend its current contract with Waste Management for six months, while looking for ways to hold the line on rising costs, including, at the insistence of Vice Mayor Vince Lago, looking at taking bids from other collection services. The real question is whether residents should be slapped with a fee hike.

“We’re out there to give world class service,” says Al Zamora, the assistant director of public works in charge of sanitation. “The question is, is it sustainable?”

Residential Trash Collection
Photo by Emily Fakhoury

Part of that world class service is the Gables’ vaunted and costly backyard pickup, in which collectors come to the rear or side of 11,000 single-family homes to grab the trash. And they come twice a week. In addition, Gables residents receive weekly pickups of bulk green matter from front-of-the-house swales and of recycling goods – paper, cans and bottles.

The annual fee for those visits is $898. Yet 70 percent of customers pay $132 less than that by taking advantage of a 15 percent discount the city offers for early payment. That adds up to a loss of more than $1 million.

Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli has suggested ending the discounts, but no elected official favors ending the backyard “concierge” garbage pickups Gables residents enjoy. “That is a service that is critical and special to residents, and one of the things that sets us apart,” says Lago.

Zamora, former Miami Beach sanitation director and Waste Management manager, says that when he was hired by Coral Gables two years ago, “One of the things made clear to me was that automation [in which residents set trash bins out front for pick up by robot-armed trucks] was not going to happen in the Gables. There’s no way.”

The cost issue is also affected by collecting yard cuttings. Each year the city hauls away 31,000 tons of green matter – grass clippings, palm fronds and tree branches – placed on the swales. That represents 60 percent of all residential pickups, according to Zamora. (The city also collects annually 9,000 tons of garbage and 2,700 tons of recyclables).

One of the problems is that some of that green tonnage comes from outside the Gables, thanks to illegal dumping from landscapers, many who use the open pits along Red Road (SW 57th Avenue), the city’s western boundary. The practice is to end their day at a Gables property, and dump all they also collected from earlier jobs. “It’s gotten to where we’re the butt of everybody’s joke,” says Lago.

Enforcement is a challenge. In the last year, three landscapers caught in the act of illegal dumping were cited by sanitation department inspectors, Zamora says. They could face fines of $500 each.

Residential Trash Collection
Photo by Emily Fakhoury

Both Lago and Commissioner Michael Mena have done away with the trash pits in front of their homes, requiring their landscapers to haul away grass and trimmings. Mena suggests offering financial rewards to those who close trash pits, “through some sort of tax credit or other incentive program. The city will come out and sod the area for you if you want to eliminate your pit. They are unsightly.”

What is beautiful in the City Beautiful, says Zamora, is the cleanliness of recyclables residents put out in bins. “We have an 8 percent contamination rate,” says Zamora. “That is fabulous. Miami-Dade County is at almost 38 percent. And some cities are as high as 50 percent.” The result is that the Gables is not charged for its recyclables, whereas other municipalities in the county pay between $80 and $100 per ton. 

Proposals for changes to trash, recycling and garbage pickup were due to be submitted to the city’s procurement office by Aug. 25. From there City Manager Peter Iglesias will make a recommendation to the commission. “The city is going to have to take drastic measures,” says Lago. “The key here is having a discussion, finding solutions. What I am not advocating is just to raise rates.”