City auditor recommends $5 garbage fee hike

Maintenance and repair costs are rising because of the age of the city’s garbage truck fleet.
Maintenance and repair costs are rising because of the age of the city’s garbage truck fleet. rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

A combination of a $5 increase in the city garbage fee and savings from reduced maintenance and repairs would be almost enough to fund replacing the city’s aging solid waste collection truck fleet, City Auditor John Redmond told Columbus Council today.

Redmond and Rebecca Myers, the city’s forensic auditor, reported to council the results of a study they did on the city’s integrated waste management. The results validated what Public Works Director Pat Biegler and others in her department told council in a report recently -- that the majority of the fleet is well beyond its effective age, and is costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Waste collection fleet repairs and maintenance expenses were about $850,000 in 2008, but have risen steadily since. They topped $1 million in fiscal 2010 and are expected to top $2.5 million by the end of fiscal 2016, according to the auditors’ report.

“If we don’t change our fleet, that number is just going to continue to increase,” Myers said.

Eliminating much of those expenses by operating new trucks would go a long way toward financing lease payments for a new fleet, Redmond said. But an increase in the stagnant garbage fees will also be necessary to fully finance capital needs and to set aside money for future expenses related to landfill closures, he said.

For years, the city’s garbage fee was $14 a month. That was raised by 14 cents in 2014 and by 86 cents in 2015, bringing it to $15 a month. If there is another increase on the horizon, it will not likely be a $5 a month hike, observers say.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said she will have a “comprehensive proposal” concerning the waste collection fleet situation in her fiscal 2017 budget, due to be released in two weeks.

“But I can tell you that I will not propose a $20 fee,” Tomlinson said. “We appreciate the important information today. Basically, the information today tells us what we have known, and that is for over 15 years we have not been adjusting our Integrated Waste fee as needed to maintain the level of investment that provides the level of service our citizens demand.”

Tomlinson said the city probably should have been gradually hiking the fee over the years.

“Maybe we thought we were doing right by our citizens at that time by not incrementally raising fees, but we did not have a long term understanding of how this lack of investment would have a devastating impact on our ability to deliver Integrated Waste services,” Tomlinson said.

Following the presentation, Biegler said she did feel vindicated by the auditors’ reports because they backed up what she has been telling councilors since she took her job in 2012.

“His recommendations were pretty much what I had recommended back in January,” Biegler said. “Most of our trucks need to be replaced. We are finding it more and more difficult to be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish out there every day. We’re spending more time down. We’re spending a lot more money repairing it. And we’re working overtime, too, because we don’t have enough vehicles all the time.”

New garbage trucks cost about $230,000 Redmond said, but he recommend that the city stop buying vehicles and start leasing them, because it’s a constant, predictable expense and the trucks are replaced more regularly, before they become maintenance nightmares, like the current fleet.