Austin Resource Recovery runs the most expensive waste disposal program per customer in the state and takes pride in the environmentally conscious services the city provides.
The $97 million budget approved for the department this fiscal year is 13.2 percent higher than three budgets ago, when the department claimed a $6.1 million surplus. But for the second straight year, ARR is projecting a deficit, this time $3.2 million.
The department’s recycling program has lost millions for at least the last five years. The percentage of all waste diverted into recycling has flattened out during that time at less than 40 percent a year, making it impossible to reach the goal set a few years ago of 75 percent recycled waste by 2020.
Austin and cities around the country are contending with the toughest market for recycled materials ever, with the dramatic pullback last year of China, the world’s single biggest buyer, as The Texas Monitor reported in May.
Austin Resource Recovery, however, is going in the other direction. Department officials are considering recommending that residential recycling, currently voluntary, be made mandatory with penalties for non-compliance and requiring businesses to contract exclusively through the city for their waste disposal, interim director Sam Angoori told The Texas Monitor.
Both changes, even in a city that considers itself environmentally enlightened, are likely to be controversial. Each would cost millions and add to Austin’s already high waste disposal rates.The ranking of Austin as highest among major Texas cities comes from ARR’s own study, released in November.
The study made no recommendations for cost savings and Angoori acknowledged that the mayor and city council will almost certainly not consider any measure that would pare back services. The study, which cost $18,000, produced no suggestions for changes to the current operation, Angoori said.
More likely, he said, his department, as part of updating its 2011 master plan, will research cities with aggressive and mandatory recycling programs like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. The master plan, which called for the recycling of 50 percent of trash by 2015, 75 percent by 2020 and all trash by 2040, might have been too aggressive, Angoori said. But without forcing people to use their blue bins it will be difficult to reach even relaxed recycling goals, he said.
Angoori said he could also see a recommendation from his staff to bring commercial entities into the city’s overall waste disposal program, which would require businesses to recycle in the same way as homeowners.
Those recommendations would probably not come before the master plan is updated, probably sometime in 2021, he said.
“I cannot speak for them, but I think it would be difficult for the mayor, or a council member or myself recommending something providing fewer services,” Angoori said. “Reducing services doesn’t make sense.”
The Texas Monitor contacted officials for Texas Disposal Systems and Balcones Resources, the two private companies that take and process waste collected by the city. Neither company returned a call for comment before this story posted.
So far, there has been little pressure to explain why it costs $97 million to serve about 200,000 homes while Houston provides for nearly 425,000 customers on an annual budget of $86 million — a comparison not made in the ARR study.
In its comparison of monthly rates, the study shows Austin has the fourth highest base rates of the 15 cities surveyed. But the state capital city surges way ahead of the others with the addition of almost $9 a month per customer in environmental fees. Only one other city makes regular collections in six different recycling categories.
It takes more people to provide those services. The cost of staff each month to a customer in Austin is $12.77; in Dallas, it’s $8.43; in San Antonio, $8.01; and in El Paso, $5.70, according to the study.
The median annual salary for an ARR employee is $49,286. The combined median salary for waste department workers in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, New Braunfels and San Antonio is $37,991, the study says.
For all of those extras, Austin ended the last fiscal year recycling 36 percent of its waste and is projecting just 38 percent by the end of this year. San Antonio recycles at 32 percent, Fort Worth at 21 percent and Dallas at 20 percent, according to the study. None of those cities has a mandatory recycling ordinance. And like Austin, none of these cities is remotely close to any of the goals set by their city councils.
In the potential cost reduction section of the study is an item that refers readers to ARR’s budget. The study says only that “ARR funds multiple programs that are typically funded by other departments in benchmark cities.”
More than a third of ARR’s budget for this fiscal year — $35 million — consists of transfers, including more than $11 million in something called support services. This dispersal is similar to the way the city uses monthly collections from Austin Energy customers.
Which departments are funded with monthly waste disposal collections, how much they receive, and why, are questions Phil Howry failed to get answers to during his year on the Zero Waste Advisory Commission. The citizen commission of council and mayoral appointees acts as an advisor to Austin Resource Recovery staff.
Howry, whose term expires at the end of February, said the commission has shown little interest in the kind of accounting he’s been requesting. He got interested two year ago, when Lost Creek, the neighborhood where he’s lived for nearly 40 years, was annexed by Austin.
Howry used to pay a private hauler $47 quarterly for the service of two 96-gallon trash bins. ARR forced him to use a single 64-gallon bin for $47 a month, he said.
“I think of the [waste disposal] bill as nothing more than a de facto property tax,” Howry told The Texas Monitor. “When I’ve asked specifically to research costs, I’ve been told to make a freedom-of-information request. But there is no interest in knowing why it costs so much. All they want is recycling. The people of the city of Austin are so hoodwinked by this.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].