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April 20, 2014

Proposal to increase garbage fees in Modesto could spare community forestry program

Modesto officials are proposing to raise monthly garbage bills to maintain the community forestry program; they say diverting trimmings from the city’s 200,000 trees helps meet a state requirement to keep half of the city’s garbage out of the landfill.

Modesto officials have talked for months about taking the budget ax to the community forestry program – which prunes and maintains the city’s 200,000 trees along its streets and in its parks – as part of the reductions they are considering for the budget year that starts July 1.

But now officials say forestry is too important to cut and suggest raising residential and commercial garbage bills to maintain the program. Under a proposal from the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department, residential users would see their garbage bills increase from $27.34 to $29 per month and commercial users would see their bills increase by nearly 13 percent.

Jocelyn Reed, the city’s solid waste manager, said reducing the forestry program would hurt the city. California mandates that cities divert 50 percent of their solid waste – such as household garbage and tree trimmings – from landfills. The percentage will rise to 75 percent by 2020, and cities can face penalties of $10,000 per day for not meeting the mandate.

Reed said the material produced by the forestry program helps the city meet the diversion mandate and is a necessary component in the 45,000 tons of certified organic compost the city produces annually with some of the garbage it keeps out of the landfill. She said the city sells the compost to farmers.

Reed said the wood chips fluff up the compost piles, letting air circulate and allowing microbes to covert the organic material into compost. She said the process would not work without the chips.

The City Council’s Finance Committee recommended this month that the full council approve the proposal.

The forestry program has a $2.7 million operating budget, with $550,000 coming from the green waste fund, $850,000 from the surface transportation fund and $1.3 million from the general fund. The proposal would fully fund the operating budget through higher green waste fees – which are among the charges that make up Modestans’ monthly garbage bills – and would return the other funding to the surface transportation and general funds.

The proposed increases to the green waste fees are larger than the increases customers would see on their garbage bills. That’s because the green waste increases would be offset by reductions in other fees on the bills. Modesto will hold a hearing in June on the proposed changes.

Modesto officials are looking at how to cut $8 million to $9 million from the city’s $113 million general fund budget in this and the next two budget years because of the defeat of Measure X in the November election. The measure was a 1 percent sales tax expected to bring in about $26 million annually over six years for the general fund.

Modesto lost about $20 million in general fund revenue during the Great Recession and has cut spending and borrowed against reserves and other accounts to balance the fund. City officials have said they no longer can dip into reserves and other accounts and will need to rely on cost-cutting to balance the fund.

The proposal to raise green waste fees would return $1.3 million to the general fund, which pays for public safety, parks and recreation, and other basics, and $850,000 to the surface transportation fund, which is primarily funded through gas taxes and pays for streets and related expenses.

The Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department has been considering how to stabilize the forestry program’s budget for a couple of years, well before Measure X, said Steve Lumpkin, the department’s acting director. He said forestry has lost about half of its budget in about eight years, and workers have gone from trimming trees every three years to every eight.

The longer pruning cycle has let the parasite mistletoe make inroads with the city’s trees.

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