Rather than approve the rate hikes, the council adopted interim City Manager John Danielson's proposed plan, which includes forming an "action team" to quickly address key questions the town and its residents have about the proposed agreement with Recology, which took over garbage collection services from Allied Waste in January.
The vote to delay the rate-hike decision was 4-0, with Kathy McKeithen absent.
The Feb. 16 public hearing on the proposed rate schedule was held in a hall in the town's park to accommodate the anticipated crowd of residents unhappy with the proposal. They showed up, although the number of them who spoke was likely diminished by the council's indication early on that it was unwilling to go forward with the increases until its questions were addressed.
Residents who did speak not only blasted the proposed rate hike but also complained about poor service, rude employees, details of the garbage and recycling collection program, and Recology's overall business plan.
A number of them complained about the change in the pickup schedule for recyclables from every other week to weekly, saying it is unnecessary, and leads to additional truck traffic and blight on their streets.
"We look like a slum," complained resident Helen Harmon, who noted that because Atherton wasn't built with alleys, the garbage cans and other receptacles must be hauled out to the street, where some of them sit for days. "It's very upsetting to see the garbage cans out on the streets — it looks like a garbage dump day after day."
Mr. Danielson told the Almanac after the meeting that he is putting together the so-called action team of professional colleagues to collect hard data on how the proposed rates were calculated and other information needed to create a fair rate schedule. He is seeking outside help for the project, he said, because of limited staff time available for such a difficult task.
"We have to get some outside help — some real tenacious, analytical types," he said. "I can't express enough how complicated these (issues) are."
The team he assembles will look at, among other things, why the rate increases proposed for Atherton are so much higher than increases in other Peninsula towns served by Recology, and how much of the residents' monthly bills are going toward paying off bonds issued for the new transfer station built to serve all jurisdictions belonging to a joint powers authority, the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, of which Atherton is a member.
Another key question pertains to the $334,000 outstanding debt the town owes to its former waste collection service, Allied Waste. Mr. Danielson and others at the public hearing questioned the debt in light of Allied Waste's assurances to the town in March 2010 that a 16.9 percent rate increase would be sufficient for the company to cover its costs and make the profit agreed to in its contract with the town.
Stressing the importance of working through the issues quickly so that new garbage collection rates can be established, Mayor Jim Dobbie said the council is likely to hold a special meeting before its regular March meeting.