Talking trash: City leaders ponder garbage rate increases

Auburn collectively cranked out nearly 50,000 tons of garbage in 2022.

Auburn collectively cranked out nearly 50,000 tons of garbage in 2022.

To put that in perspective, the garbage generated at homes and businesses and the litter picked up all over town and hauled off summed to 7.62% of all of King County’s trash, making Auburn close to the fifth-highest solid-waste producing city in the county.

“Yeah, it’s a lot,” Joan Nelson, Auburn’s Solid Waste and Recycling Supervisor, told a city council work session on Oct. 9.

Nelson was there to talk about solid waste and potential increases to user rates that the city says are necessary to cover rising costs, and to maintain the required balance in the city’s solid waste fund, all of which is outlined in a recently completed solid waste rate study.

Should the Auburn City Council vote those new rates into effect, the higher rates would incorporate King County’s disposal fee hike; the increased collection costs for the city’s hauler, Waste Management Northwest; and provide 40 days of working capital in the solid waste fund by the end of 2026, Nelson said.

King County’s disposal fee increases, known and estimated, are as follows: in 2024, $185.28 per ton, or 9.8%; in 2025, the fees are estimated to be $202.43 per ton, or about 9.3%; and in 2026, an estimated $221.66 per ton, or 9.5%.

“With the rate restructuring King County has done, we have to restructure how we pay Waste Management for this increase. But that will come later,” Nelson said. “Our goal right now is to have steady increases. We want to try to avoid any large ones, but for 2024, we’re looking at an 8.9 percent overall increase, for 2025, it’s 7 percent, and 2026 is 6.7 percent.”

Every year, the rates the city pays Waste Management rise with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metropolitan Area. Beyond the known 4.5% rate increase for 2024, the city estimates a 4% rate increase for 2025 and a 3.75% increase for 2026.

Per policy and best practices, the city needs to maintain a minimum fund balance of 8% and a maximum of 12% of operating costs, or the equivalent of 29-to-44 days in reserves, Nelson said.

Auburn includes an 11.5 % utility tax in its solid waste rates.

The city’s goal in all of this is to continue to build the solid waste fund balance with smaller, more frequent rate increases that would cover annual increases to the Consumer Price Index and King County tipping fees, as opposed to continuing to tap the fund balance and hitting its customers with large, but infrequent, rate increases, Nelson said.

The city entered into a new contract with Waste Management on Oct. 1, 2021, the first since 2014, and with that contract came substantial increases to its costs, including a 25% overall hike to its contractor rates and a 29%-to-48% hike to its residential rates.

Since 2021, the city’s solid waste fund has been subsidizing a portion of the cost increases, resulting in a reduction in its fund balance from 2021 to 2023.

“We actually had a really nice, robust fund balance to help support and offset some of those rate increases,” Nelson said. “We’ve used about $3 million from our fund balance to offset rate increases to customers, and so we’re here now as we look upon more cost increases to make sure that we cover our costs.”

Garbage service is mandatory in Auburn, mainly for public health reasons, Nelson said.

“We want to make sure everyone is disposing of their garbage on a weekly basis, and no one is storing anything up,” Nelson said.

Many cities in Washington do not have a solid waste fund.

“We actually have our own fund. We set our rates to our customers, and then we pay our hauler the invoices each month for our costs. We don’t necessarily have to always increase rates. We can use fund balances to help offset those rate increases,” Nelson said.

“We are the ones who set the rates for our residents and businesses, and we are looking right now to maintain a fund balance target of 29 to 44 days. When we look at these rates, we want to make sure that every service sector – residential, commercial and roll up – is supporting its costs and no one is cross subsidizing each other,” Nelson said.

And here are a few new things customers would get for the money. Waste Management would henceforth act as the billing agent and provide customer and litter crew services; there would be new, on-demand, bulky-item collection for residents and unlimited recycling for businesses; and finally, all new carts, dumpsters and collection vehicles.

At this time, the city’s solid waste fund provides for two litter crews: a two-person, Waste Management crew; and two full-time employees in the city’s Maintenance and Operations Division (M&O), who are tasked with picking up litter and cleaning up illegal dumping.

The city also looks to support a third litter crew from its solid waste fund. The city’s new Real Estate Division has been using American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover the costs of that crew, but those funds run out at the end of 2023. Per the rate study, the city looks to tap $450,000 from the solid waste fund to cover additional litter crew services.

“We really have seen a benefit added by having that additional crew, so we’d like to find a way to fund them to continue in the future,” said Nelson.

All the crews have different scopes of work. For instance, the M&O crew coordinates with the vegetation crew to pick up litter before the mowers move in. It also empties downtown cans on Tuesdays and Fridays, takes care of shopping carts and cleans up the city-owned parking lots.

The Waste Management crew has more of a structured schedule. It has routes Monday to Friday and helps the city maintain city-owned garbage enclosures like the one behind Oddfellas, and picks up bulky items like mattresses and couches.

The real estate crew has a staggered schedule, so between the crews, Auburn is able to clean some parts of the city more than once per week, Nelson said.

Between January and June 2023 , the city’s litter crews picked up more than 220,000 pounds of trash from city rights-of-way.

“All three crews are out there, every day. They’re doing different things, but they’re all helping to keep our city clean and sanitary,” said Nelson.