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Los Altos Hills garbage gripes may prompt temporary reduction in rates

GreenWaste Recovery
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier File Photo
A GreenWaste Recovery employee empties a garbage dumpster outside Los Altos Hills town hall. Economic pressures from COVID-19 have influenced a rate increase cut.

Updated 9:12 a.m. July 9: Los Altos Hills City Council members could hear next week from town staff tasked with evaluating a proposal to lower garbage collection rates for residents. 

A year into a 15-year contract between the town and San Jose-based GreenWaste Recovery, Emily Hanson, the company’s director of business development and communications, publicly introduced the idea during the council’s June 18 meeting. It would involve lowering rate increases for base services to 2.45% rather than 9% during the contract’s second year, which started July 1.

In a telephone interview with the Town Crier last week, City Manager Carl Cahill said he suggested the contract amendment to GreenWaste due to current economic conditions under COVID-19.

“I have to imagine people are impacted right now – even in a town like Los Altos Hills,” Cahill said Thursday. “I have to imagine some may be furloughed or laid off.”

A staff report on the matter is expected at the July 16 city council meeting.

Hills residents use three different carts for waste: a gray cart for trash and organic material, a blue cart for recycling and up to two green carts for yard trimmings. Their monthly payment is based on the size of the gray cart, and additional services like drive-on or walk-on collection for residents with physical limitations cost extra.

In 2018, GreenWaste representatives contacted town officials about executing a new contract, as the one in effect at the time expired in June 2019. They stated that rising expenses stemming in part from increasing labor costs and new legislation implementing stricter recycling standards necessitated a steep increase to rates, and the city council elected to introduce the hikes gradually, forgoing a franchise fee from GreenWaste until July 1, 2023, to subsidize increases.

They approved a 9% increase to base collection rates for the first five years of the contract, through the 2023-2024 rate year. Effective July 1, 2019, the monthly cost of a 20-gallon gray cart, the smallest receptacle size, rose to $34.33. Annual increases thereafter were set to follow the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The new proposal Hanson introduced last month would lower the rate increase to 2.45% in 2020-2021, pushing the final 9% increase to the 2024-2025 rate year, after which increases would follow the CPI, estimated at 3%.

Comparative analysis

In addition to residents upset about skyrocketing rates, GreenWaste also faces pressure to appease Los Altos Hills leaders after the terms of the company’s new contracts with Portola Valley and Woodside became public knowledge. In those two San Mateo County communities, residents pay $26.65 per month for a 20-gallon gray cart, and they also get two blue carts and up to three green carts included in the price.

“Right now, I do feel like we do have concerned residents who feel like the rates have gone up and the service has gone down,” Mayor Michelle Wu said at the June 18 meeting.

The discrepancy, Hanson explained, is because Woodside and Portola Valley, unlike Los Altos Hills, feature commercial sectors and unincorporated areas that “lighten the load” on the residential sectors; GreenWaste makes up its needed revenue elsewhere.

The San Mateo County cities also don’t benefit from street sweeping or compost giveaways, and their town-wide collections of bulky trash items are three-hour events compared to the six-hour events that take place in Los Altos Hills three times a year. Lately, however, no one has benefited from town-wide clean-ups. The Foothill College parking lot that normally hosts the events is under construction, and both the April and June clean-ups were canceled.

Foothill-De Anza Community College District Chancellor Judy Miner recently indicated the Hills could possibly use the school’s Sunnyvale campus for future events, Vice Mayor Kavita Tankha said last week, and the town on Wednesday (July 8) confirmed a clean-up event is now scheduled there for July 25.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 25, Los Altos Hills residents may bring items to the Foothill College Sunnyvale Center, 1070 Innovation Way in Sunnyvale, for disposal.

“Important Note: Lines and wait times at this event are likely to be significantly longer than Clean-Up Events held prior to COVID-19,” town officials wrote in an email sent to residents Wednesday. “There is presently an increased demand for these services where strict social distancing protocols will be followed in order to maintain the health and safety of everyone involved in these events.”

Visit losaltoshills.ca.gov for a full list of instructions and rules – including those related to face coverings and social distancing.

Cahill said he’s following a city council directive to form a subcommittee of residents that will complete a comparative analysis of Los Altos Hills’ garbage contract with those of other nearby towns and investigate complaints about GreenWaste customer service. Some residents, for example, are upset because GreenWaste drivers left their garbage behind. The pandemic has heralded a boom in package deliveries, meaning more cardboard to recycle, and some residents are not bundling it correctly or it doesn’t tumble into the collection trucks like it should.

GreenWaste drivers don’t want to touch these left-behind articles for fear of contracting COVID-19, Cahill said.

“I think folks are just concerned, and we’re concerned, too, because if there is a significant infection, that disrupts service,” he said. “But I want to be respectful of their desire to follow certain protocols.”

The subcommittee will likely present a report to council members at their August meeting, Cahill added.

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