Aluminum cans are melted down to produce new cans.

Aluminum cans are melted down to produce new cans. (Courtesy Lou Murray)

Some people in town are upset because our trash collection fees may go up.

Like other homeowners, Vic and I got the notice that the city of Huntington Beach is proposing to raise the residential trash collection fees. Vic thought the proposed fee increase would make a good column topic, but I didn't give it another thought. Costs go up. It seemed reasonable to me that the fees that we pay to cover those costs should also go up. I guess I underestimated the extent to which some residents of this city will protest something as minor as an increase in fees of 64 cents a month.

To gather some background on this issue, Vic and I visited Rainbow Disposal on Nichols Street last week. We talked with Ron Shenkman, chairman of the board of directors, and Sue Gordon, vice president of environmental and public affairs. Rainbow Disposal has provided refuse collection services for Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley since the 1950s. It also serves Westminster, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Irvine.

Rainbow is raising its fee for residential refuse collection by a mere 34 cents a month. At the same time, the city is raising its fee by 30 cents a month. This brings the total to a mere 64 cents, an increase that is long overdue.

Neither Rainbow nor the city can raise its fees arbitrarily. By law, fee increases are tied to three indices: 1) increases in the Consumer Price Index, 2) the cost that it takes to dump refuse in a landfill (called the landfill tipping fee) and 3) the trash hauler's cost of compressed natural gas, which is what those big blue trucks burn. The Air Quality Management District required the conversion from diesel to compressed natural gas as a fuel several years ago. The result is cleaner air in our neighborhoods and less noise.

As anyone who has eaten in a restaurant, bought groceries or paid for a tank of gasoline lately knows, the cost of everything is going up. In July, the tipping fee at our landfills went from $22 a ton to $29.95 a ton. Even though its costs have been rising, Rainbow hasn't asked for a fee increase since 2006. Every city in Orange County will need to raise its rates because of the increase in dumping fees.

According to the formula for fee increases that went into effect through Proposition 218 in the 1990s, Rainbow and the city would have been justified in raising their prices every year since 2006. But they have kept the rate flat for five years.

What has kept us from getting a fee increase has been the good work we've all done in sorting our recyclables and green waste from true trash. At Rainbow, recyclables are sorted and then resold. The commodity markets have been good lately, and that is why Rainbow has held the collection fees steady for the past five years.

"Rainbow has been entitled to rate increases since 2006, but we haven't taken them because sales of recyclables has compensated," Shenkman said.

At a diversion rate of 71%, Huntington Beach not only has the highest rate of recycling in Orange County, we tied with Fresno as the top recycling city in California. That was based on figures from 2006. The system of separate collection bins rolled out in 2007 and the amount of material diverted from landfills increased even more.

With all the investment that Rainbow has made recently in environmentally friendly trash collection and recycling practices, it seems only reasonable that this employee-owned company should finally receive a fee increase after holding the line for five years.

But Vic and I didn't see how that translated to a fee increase for the city as well, so we called Travis Hopkins, director of public works. Turns out that the city is controlled by the same forces as Rainbow and is entitled to fee increases whenever the Consumer Price Index, landfill tipping fees or fuel costs rise. When we talked to Hopkins, he pointed out that the city's share of the fee increase would go to increased administrative costs and to raising the canopies of the city's 68,000 street trees so the trucks can get under them without breaking branches.

There is a mechanism in place to protest the fee increases, set into law by Proposition 218: Any property owner can protest the fee increase by writing a letter to the city clerk's office. Those letters can be mailed or hand-delivered, but they must contain a signature, identify the property and state opposition to the fee increase. These letters then become part of the public record. Maybe it's just me, but it seems pretty silly to spend 44 cents on a first-class postage stamp to protest a 64-cent increase in fees.

Proposition 218 made it easier to protest fee increases for services such as water, sewer or trash. While some tax and fee issues require a ballot measure with a two-thirds vote to pass, this is not one of them. An increase in fees for water, sewer or trash hauling requires only 50% plus one to pass. Because there are about 47,000 single-family residences in Huntington Beach, it would require about 23,501 letters, to stop a fee increase. Letters must be in the city clerk's office by March 21.

We checked with the city clerk, and as of Monday, the office had received 203 letters protesting the fee increase. Unless a heck of a lot more people protest, it looks like the fee increase will go through.

We know that things are tough and many people are still out of work. My social security checks won't be increasing for the next three years. But this fee increase is about a third of the cost of a cup of coffee.

Rainbow is a good corporate citizen and, in our opinion, is long overdue for that fee increase. And a few more pennies a month to help support our city's infrastructure isn't a bad thing.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.