News - March 31, 2010

Menlo Park: Like it or not, costs for services are rising

by Sean Howell

As Menlo Park residents struggle to cope with the effects of the economic recession, fees for basic and not-so-basic city services are on the rise, due in part to cost increases and budget shortfalls.

Beginning July 1, single-family homeowners will pay an additional $5 per month for each garbage can they own, thanks to increased pass-through costs from Republic Services (formerly Allied Waste), the company that handles the city's garbage collection services. Owners of multi-family and commercial buildings would see a 28 percent spike in collection fees.

Some homeowners have seen nearly a 70 percent increase since 2008.

And water rates are expected to more than double between now and 2015, as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission completes a major project to install new pipes bringing water to the Bay Area from the Hetch Hetchy water system. They have already increased 57 percent since 2006.

The City Council grappled with these and other service-related topics at its March 23 meeting, signing off on the garbage rate increases. A public hearing on water rates is scheduled for late April, with the council expected

to approve a five-year water rate plan in May.

Residents aren't likely to be pleased by the rate increases, and council members didn't particularly like being forced to approve the higher garbage rates. Republic Services cited several reasons for the hike, including higher labor and fuel costs, and the cost of complying with state air-quality law. While rates have risen, so have Republic's profits, which are fixed as a percentage of operating costs.

Recology (formerly Norcal Waste), the company that handles waste collection in San Francisco, will take over the city's waste collection contract at the end of the year.

Councilman Andy Cohen dissented in the garbage vote, arguing for a rate structure that would be slightly more lenient.

"I would only ask my fellow council members to keep in mind just how much of tonight's agenda has been spent on jacking up the costs to our residents," he said.

The water and garbage rate increases may also encourage people to conserve and recycle, though they're not designed for that purpose. Council members discussed the possibility of making the city's tiered water rates even more extreme, a tactic they hope would encourage heavy water users to cut back.

Other services

Fees for other city services are also on the rise, especially for child care and the use of sports fields. The city is increasing the rates in order to recover a greater percentage of its costs to provide such services, as it tries to claw its way out of a structural budget deficit.

In general, the new rates are in line with what other jurisdictions charge, according to city management.

After Little League and youth soccer representatives argued against the steep hikes at the meeting, the council unanimously voted for slightly smaller increases for the use of soccer and baseball/softball fields than city staff had recommended.

The council also approved new fee increases at a lower rate than planned to people enrolled in the Belle Haven child care program, which receives a significant subsidy from the state.

The council rejected a recommendation by the planning department to make a resident pay the full cost of a second appeal of a city decision. The recommendation was aimed at preventing cases like a recent one when a woman twice appealed a decision to award a permit to Safeway, so that she could air mostly unrelated grievances to the City Council.

A majority of council members said they didn't want to restrict residents' ability to have a hearing before them, while Councilman John Boyle argued that the city should try to discourage frivolous appeals.


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