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Refuse service fees to increase in January; rates set to increase 15 percent by March

SIERRA VISTA — The fees some residents pay for refuse services such as dumpster rentals will be higher next year, and even though rates for refuse services are also set to increase by 15 percent, the public will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed hike over the next 30 days, the City Council said Thursday.

Residents also will have an opportunity to chime in on whether the city should privatize recycling services. By doing so, the city could save an additional $140,000, the City Council was told this week.

Those savings, as well as the additional revenue that would be generated by the increases in refuse fees and rates, are designed to boost the city’s Refuse Enterprise Fund. The latter has been bleeding money for the last four years, leaving the fund in the red.

The increase in refuse service fees takes hold next month, while the hike in refuse service rates doesn’t take effect until March, city officials said. Once that occurs, the increases could generate over $765,000 in revenues, city officials said. That would be enough to make up for losses in both fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

Fees and rates are different. Fees are paid only by people who use certain services. Rates determine the monthly bill all residents pay for refuse services.

As for privatizing the city’s recycling services, one of the savings would include not having to pay employees at the city’s recycling center because the service would be handled by a private vendor. City Manager Chuck Potucek said at least two companies have expressed an interest in taking over the recycling for the city.

A summary presented to council members earlier this week outlines the Enterprise Refuse Fund issue: “The Refuse Fund has been operating at a deficit for the past four years due to environmental factors, such as changes to state laws regarding commercial refuse operations. In fiscal year 2017, the City Council approved a 15 percent rate increase that helped decrease the annual loss in the fund.

“Unfortunately, additional fee and rate increases are needed to make the fund whole. Then proposed fee and 15 percent rate increase would generate an estimated $767,626 in revenues that would cover both FY19 and FY20 losses.

By privatizing the recycling operations, the city would save an estimated $140,000 per year.

“The Green Waste program offers significant benefits to the system, especially the savings the system generated by diverting green waste from the landfill. Without the program, an estimated 25 to 30 percent rate increase would be required to make the fund whole due to the increased green waste landfill costs.”

The issue of raising refuse service fees was tabled for several weeks after two council members voiced concerns that the increases were too steep. Public Works Director Sharon Flissar recently said that because of that concern city officials had to find another way to help put the Refuse Enterprise Fund back on track. So, a rate hike was proposed, as well.

Potucek also recently told council members that refuse service rates could remain the same, but eventually that would have to have to change, and when it did, the increase could be even higher.

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, most council members praised the staff for coming up with a solution to help place the Enterprise Refuse Fund back in the black.

“We have really taken our time and asked a lot of questions,” said Mayor Pro Tem Rachel Gray. “With the fees, it was a really deep dive we had to take.”

Mayor Rick Mueller said city officials looked at “all aspects” of the Enterprise Refuse Fund: “We are focused on providing the best service for the lowest cost. I’m in favor of moving ahead.”

BRUSH OFF: Old Bisbee Firewise takes steps to lower wildland fire risks

BISBEE — Though at times an inconvenience to those traveling up and down Highway 80 east of the Mule Pass Tunnel, the work being done to clear land above Old Bisbee is critical to the properties and lives of the people who call the high-fire risk area home.

Old Bisbee Firewise (OBF), a grass-roots nonprofit boasting over 400 members, formed to tackle the dangerous problem of the dry wildland–urban interface the community has with vast public and private lands, began work on Dec. 2. In the first week of the months-long project, nearly six acres of the Spring Canyon area including 15 properties, city owned land, Arizona Water land, and a communications company tower land were cleared, said one of the OBF founders, Al Anderson, on Thursday.

“The upper Spring Canyon area was rated the highest risk in the city,” he added. “The amount of vegetation and the close proximity of the homes in the box canyon, with only one way in and out made it high risk.”

Thanks to a $135,248 grant from the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) and help of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), Cochise County Supervisor Ann English, volunteers and the highly–trained fire crew from the Department of Correction (DOC) Douglas Prison, a very large step was taken to begin clearing dry fuels which could spread fire from the hilltop areas.

Ann Carl, also an OBF founder and wife of Anderson, said ADOT has been handling traffic control at no cost for the safety of the crews, which Anderson pointed out was worth around $33,000. The county’s donation equaled around $12,000 for trucks and hauling. The Bisbee Police Department provided extra help on Hwy. 80 to slow traffic and the city will be allowing the dumping of large tree cuttings at the airport.

Anderson acts as a go-between the residents and the DOC’s highly trained wildland firefighting team. The members are low-level risk offenders and “on their best behavior” because of the equal status they hold with other wildland fire teams across the state.

“The residents are appreciative of the what we’re doing,” he said. “Maybe one-tenth of one percent are sour grapes, but the rest are very happy this is being done.”

While some residents object to having trees cut, Carl noted though trees were wonderful to have, some had to be taken to provide defensible space and access to homes. Some property owners flagged the trees and bushes they did not want to be disturbed and Anderson did his best to make sure crews did not touch them, even though the vegetation could add to fire risk.

Other residents questioned the spread of the dry mulch coming out of the chipper, but Carl explained the vegetation matter was actually a good thing to hold soil moisture and help grass grow. And, the point is keeping fuels from reaching heights which could light higher brush and low tree limbs.

Right now, the crews are removing ladder fuels, those low hanging tree branches and highly flammable shrubs, she reported.

“We still have a lot of weed whacking to do,” she said.

And, thanks to Bisbee Ace Hardware and the Bisbee Foundation, there are two heavy-duty whackers on the way. A couple of weed whackers have been donated as well.

It is a task which may call for help from the Verhelst House, Bisbee Homeless Shelter and even some Bisbee High School students who can learn how to use the whackers and learn a little about small motors at the same time.

“Little by little, we’ll get it done,” Carl added.

Anderson said the destructive California wildfires, and the recent fire just last month that claimed two homes and damaged two others in Bisbee, have startled people into thinking about their own situations.

“We got tons of calls after that fire. People want us to come and assess their property. They want to sign up,” said Anderson.

Carl noted, “Eventually, we want to get around the whole town. We were able to clear 180 parcels in our first grant and are looking to do another 320 strategically placed lots as more funds become available.”

Though the project underway is a big help and tackles a huge problem, the fire suppression system in Old Bisbee as a whole needs replacing, Anderson lamented.

Some of the fire hydrants do not work at all, others will not work if one in a different area is turned on.

“It’s woefully inadequate,” he stated.

For the time being, fuel reduction is the one course of action which can provide protection from risk of fire, he noted. And that is a big, big step in the right direction.