Talkin' Trash

Defend the borders and pick up the garbage. That's the heart of good government, right? Miamians who face higher garbage fees -- and the possible abolition of their city -- might consider moving to tiny Surfside.

Residents of this square-mile beach town, snuggled between Bal Harbour and Miami Beach, pay a paltry $155 a year for garbage pickup and get a visit from the garbage man six days a week. "In all of Florida we're unique!" chirps public works director Chip Cohen.

By contrast Miami picks up refuse only twice weekly, and recently considered upping the fee from $166 to $320 per year. The last time Miami raised garbage rates was 1985. "Given the city's financial crisis, it is hard to understand why [there's been no increase]," wrote interim city manager Merrett Stierheim in November, warning that any further failure of political gumption could spell disaster. Coral Gables charges $498 for garbage service, unincorporated Dade $349; Miami's artificially low fee covers only about half the true cost of gathering the rubbish. As for Surfside: "We don't have a general-fund subsidy like some cities do," says Mayor Paul Novack.

Miami's unionized garbage collectors earn an average of $12.67 per hour, whereas Surfside's make only about $9.35 and never work enough hours to be eligible for overtime pay. Every day of the week but Sunday they visit every single house, apartment building, and commercial establishment -- about 1700 stops. The town's 4300 residents don't even have to haul their refuse out to the curb. And they get daily removal of recyclable materials and trash (tree limbs and grass clippings). Crews used to make the rounds three times weekly for garbage and twice weekly for trash, but that changed in 1995 when Mayor Novack noticed waste bins near the beach were overflowing by the end of the weekend.

Even with more frequent collection, however, the town's garbage fee remains the same. Novack says garbage collectors simply work shorter days -- seven hours rather than eight. Still, doesn't frequent pickup require more labor and therefore cost more? "Ah, come on," says Cohen, the public works chief. "The cost is the same. It doesn't matter if it's three days a week or six. You have a certain amount of garbage to pick up in a year, so you pick it up, right?"

Novack: "Logic would suggest that more service would mean more cost, but in this case we were picking up garbage three days a week and picking up trash two days a week. Instead of dividing labor into garbage and trash pickup, we essentially merged the two routes. Then we shortened the length of the five workdays just enough to add a sixth."

Are there lessons here for Miami?
No, Cohen says: "It's not fair to compare one small town that's kept itself up with a big city that hasn't. Hey, I hear you typing. You can't quote me on that."

Ron Williams, assistant city manager in Miami, chuckles uneasily when asked if Miami has considered six-day-a-week garbage pickup. "It would be difficult, let me say that.


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