Oakland restaurant owners gathered by its city hall steps to protest a sharp rise in compost fees. Gail Lilian, owner of Liba Falafel and organizer of the protest, speaks. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Oakland restaurant owners gathered on city hall steps July 10, 2015 to protest a sharp rise in compost fees. Gail Lilian, owner of Liba Falafel and organizer of the protest, speaks. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

After Oakland restaurant owners staged a protest to make clear their opposition to skyrocketing compost bills, thanks to the city’s new garbage collecting contract, Oakland City Council held an emergency meeting on Monday to address the issue.

In the end, however, the council chose not to make any changes proposed by city staff, citing lack of information and communication with business owners as reasons for the delay.

Council members repeatedly apologized to the restaurant owners for the unforeseen rises in compost fees.

“I made a promise to businesses we would meet with them on composting rates prior to moving anything forward and next thing I know, I’m at this meeting,” said council woman Annie Washington at the meeting. “I feel like it’s putting my integrity into question.”

But the council did not want to make another hasty decision on the same matter without a thorough examination. Waste Management and the city of Oakland agreed on a $1 billion contract last August on short notice, giving the firm a monopoly in collecting compost and trash from Oakland residences and businesses.

“Last August, we were pressured to adopt a very long packet of material with no lead time to read,” said Oakland vice-mayor Rebecca Kaplan. “I think we all owe an apology to the people, especially to our restaurateurs.”

City officials claim the contract’s new increased fees are due to union labor, new natural gas-powered trucks and a mandatory service for all businesses that request it, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Several parts of the proposal made by city staff were questioned by the council and business owners during open forum.

An ordinance to cap maximum compost rates at 90% of its trash rates was the most scrutinized piece during the debate, as it would reflect on Waste Management’s August bill cycle if approved. The council repeatedly asked for more data to add more context and showed frustration about the rapid turnaround.

The 10% reduction rate of commercial compost remained highest compared to other cities in the Alameda County, according to a chart compiled by Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel restaurant.

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Commercial refuse collection prices in Alameda County. Click on chart to enlarge. Courtesy: Gail Lillian

Berkeley and Alameda had the second-lowest commercial rate discount at only 20% reduction rate, and San Leandro and Union City provided the highest discounts at 60%.

Another ordinance proposed to allow Waste Management to recoup its losses next year, if the first ordinance was passed and compost rates are lowered. How Waste Management will recoup remains unclear, but some business owners believed it may raise trash fees to cover its losses.

“It’s absolutely highway robbery,” Lillian said to Berkeleyside. “The city staff should be ashamed for such a proposal.”

Restaurant owners were not the sole casualty of the new contract. Low-income senior citizens had their 12.5% discount on garbage bills wiped out in the new contract. The new city proposal also included the restoration of the discount.

But business owners have faced the brunt of the compost fee hikes due to their high volume of recyclable food waste. Initially expecting an increase no more than 40%, the owners were shocked to see their compost bills rise by at least 80%.

Over 25 restaurant owners gathered at Oakland city hall on July 10 to protest the contract, some leaving their compost bins there in defiance. Some restaurants, like Luka’s Taproom and Lounge, declared they will boycott composting until the compost bills are lowered to manageable rates again.

“It’s very important that the city have economic incentives for composting,” said Luka’s owner Maria Alderete. “We thought we should stand tall and firm against these fee hikes.”

With the Oakland city council going on recess for the month of August, the contract will not be revisited until September.

Despite Monday’s meeting providing no short-term relief, business owners found some reprieve in the city council’s support and understanding.

“Monday was definitely a victory for us restaurants,” Lillian said. “The city council is now as outraged about this issue as the restaurants are.”

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