An Ecology Center split recycling cart: the center started the nation's first curbside recycling program in Berkeley nearly 40 years ago.

An independent report commissioned by Berkeley to assess how it could save money on its waste and recycling operations has recommended that the city terminate its contract with the Ecology Center which started the nation’s first curbside recycling program here nearly 40 years ago.

The report’s proposals have been challenged and its methodology criticized by the Ecology Center, as well as by at least one third-party waste management expert. The issue is to be reviewed at a special meeting of the City Council tonight at 5:30pm when the report will be presented, the Ecology Center will have a chance to respond and there will be a public hearing.

The City Council commissioned an assessment of Berkeley’s solid waste division from Irvine-based consultants Sloan Vazquez LLC last fall. Last week, the firm released their report, which recommends, among other actions, that the City of Berkeley terminate the Ecology Center’s curbside recycling program.

The city signed a 10-year contract with the Ecology Center in December 2009. “We are pretty shocked that they want to terminate our contract when the ink is almost still wet,” says Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center.

In a report he will present to the Council tonight, City Manager Phil Kamlarz says that, although the City’s Refuse Fund has made savings of $1.9 million recently — including by cutting 11 full time positions and consolidating some collection routes — costs continue to exceed revenue. Kalmlarz forecasts that the Fund will end the 2011 financial year with a deficit of approximately $1.2 million which could grow to more than $3 million in 2012 and 2013. (Read Kamlarz’s report which includes a copy of the Sloan Vazquez report.]

The Sloan Vazquez report states that taking recycling in-house would save the city $1,469,440 a year with a one-time capital cost of $1,540,000. Its other recommendations include outsourcing recycling materials processing, and internalizing the operation of the Buyback/Drop‐off operation, currently handled by a community conservation center (saving $910,017); and switching to single-person automated side-loader trucks on both residential and commercial routes (potentially saving a total of $2,237,400).

Bourque says he sees significant problems with the assumptions made in the Sloan Vazquez report, principally that the city would be able to save money by bringing operations in-house. Citing two specific examples he says: “The city waste supervisor is already overburdened and they are suggesting doubling his workload. And, at the moment, the city doesn’t carry any overheads but that will increase their costs by 26%.”

Bourque also has issues with the way the consultation process was handled — the consultants chose the day the Ecology Center was rolling out its new recycling split-carts last October to observe the program in action, which according to Bourque was atypical of its service. He adds that offers made by the Ecology Center to meet with the consultants or share data were declined.

Ultimately, however, Bourque says the issue is about “how to close a $3m budget gap”. Instrumental to this, he believes, is a need to restructure rates. “There are no fees built in to customer rates for recycling and compost,” he says. Part of the problem is that many Berkeley residents have been switching to smaller, less expensive carts, which is good news for the environment but doesn’t help fund the waste program. “The structure needs to be repaired and a 15% increase across the board is not the solution,” says Bourque.

In his report, Kamlarz concludes that if no cost-saving measures are implemented, the Council has the option of considering a rate increase. “No matter how the rates would be restructured, in order to overcome the structural deficit, the average increase is projected to be at least 15% for residential and commercial customers,” he writes.

Bourque says there is clearly a need to incentivize residents to produce less waste but that Berkeley is providing a higher service than in neighboring cities such as Oakland and El Cerrito at comparable fees.

Berkeley resident Steven Sherman, who is President of Applied Compost Consulting and has consulted for the city on waste matters, believes the Sloan Vasquez study has “terrible policy implications for the City”. In a March 3 letter to the Council he outlines why he believes the City should not accept the report’s analysis as valid.

Berkeley’s Zero Waste Commission has also condemned the study, describing it, in a February 28 report, as “incomplete and missing information, cost-benefit analyses, and a lack of an adequate and inclusive process”.

At tonight’s regular City Council meeting a 7:00pm, the council will hear an assessment of the split-cart recycling program introduced to Berkeley in October last year and managed by the Ecology Center. The report by Andrew Clough, Acting Director, Public Works, states that the new recycling cart program has proved to be “an example of successful collaboration among multiple contractors and City departments”. It concludes that there is now a better, more efficient collection of sorted recyclables. “Comparing December 2009 to December 2010 the increase is 66% for bottles and cans, and 11% for paper and cardboard.”

Bourque says that the Ecology Center is willing to sit down with the city soon to work on finding more efficiencies and cost savings. “But we can’t begin with the expectation that savings will be made by taking services in-house,” he says.

Following tonight’s meeting, Kamlarz is scheduled to make budget recommendations on this issue to the city on March 22.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...