When Mayor Kirk Caldwell went before the Honolulu City Council last March to sell members on his plan to raise the city's fuel tax by a nickel per gallon, the proposal was quickly shot down 6-3 on first reading.
On Wednesday the mayor was back before the council, this time asking members to approve a $10 monthly fee for weekly refuse service, which is currently free.
Caldwell highlighted the city's projected budget deficit and the escalating cost of labor contracts while pitching his idea for a garbage fee.
"It's not popular, it's not something that I would like to do as mayor," said Caldwell. "But I think it's something that needs to be done, particularly in light of the collective bargaining contracts that have come in over the past year, that in this fiscal year coming up will add over $50 million more in just wages and other amounts."
Caldwell said the garbage fee proposal would raise about $21 million annually for a service that costs the city about $100 million per year. Approximately 160,000 homes on Oahu receive automated trash collection, while another 19,500 receive manual pickup.
According to the city, a refuse collector earns $18.85 per hour, or $39,204 per year. A refuse collection crew leader pulls in $21.84 per hour, or $45,432 annually. Meanwhile, a refuse collection equipment operator makes $22.67 per hour, or $47,160 annually. Those salaries are in line with the national average for refuse workers of about $43,000 per year, according to SimplyHired.com. However, employment benefits typically add millions of dollars more to labor agreements.
Under a four-year contract negotiated with United Public Workers, refuse workers will receive a 2 percent pay increase every six months starting on Oct. 1 of last year. Currently 46.5 percent of all the money the city collects in taxes and fees goes toward city employees.
Caldwell told KITV4 the city's projected budget deficit of $156 million for the coming fiscal has shrunk in size, mostly due to a $20 million cost-cutting plan and a 9.9 percent increase in property tax assessments. However, council members must still find a way to balance the budget, which may be particularly tough in an election year.
The council passed the mayor's garbage fee proposal on first reading 7-2, but four council members -- Ikaika Anderson, Stanley Chang, Ron Menor and Kymberly Pine -- voted with reservations. The two no votes were cast by Joey Manahan and Ernie Martin.
"The administration needs to make a very compelling case to allow this fee to move forward," Martin said in announcing his no vote.
Meanwhile, council member Breene Harimoto lamented the fact that something will need to be done about the city's looming deficit if the mayor's garbage fee proposal is defeated.
"At some point, this council will have to face the music and see how we will balance the budget," he said.
Caldwell says the city's budget deficit is a moving target, but he may announce an actual amount during his State of the City address next Wednesday at McCoy Pavilion.
The mayor said his long-term goal is to shrink the size of city government, not through layoffs, but through the use of technology and the natural reduction of the workforce.
"It's more as people retire, how do we replace them," said Caldwell. "So, how do we become more efficient? How do we use our workers better?"
The mayor's garbage fee proposal now heads to the Budget Committee next week for second reading.