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Council votes to use COVID funds on garbage fee subsidy
garbage fees
Turlock garbage customers won’t feel the full hit of new fee increases as the City Council voted to use federal COVID funds to subsidize the rates over the next five years (Journal file photo).

Turlock residents will get a five-year break on paying higher garbage fees as the Turlock City Council decided in a split vote on Tuesday to spend $4.7 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds on subsiding the fee increase.

The Council voted in February for garbage fees to increase as of April 1 to offset new state-mandated requirements calling on municipalities to help reduce California’s organic waste by 75% in the next three years. The resulting changes contributed to Turlock Scavenger increasing fees for the first time in six years. 

Knowing that Turlockers have been feeling the brunt of recent inflation in all areas of their budgets, the Council has been discussing ways to lighten the burden, for the short-term at least.

On Tuesday, Turlock Finance Director Isaac Moreno laid out four options for the Council to consider in temporarily reducing the garbage fees. Two of options would reduce the franchise fee (the amount of money the City charges residents to manage the contract with Turlock Scavenger) to 5% and 10% over the next five years. The other two options saw the City spending federal COVID relief funds (ARPA) on subsidizing the fees over the next five years.

American Rescue Plan Act funds can be used by the City to assist households, small businesses, nonprofits and industries negatively impacted economically by the pandemic. The City can also use Rescue Plan Act funds to invest in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.

The Council has already spent ARPA funds to help with staffing shortages in public safety and other City departments, incentivize locals to shop and eat local and, most recently, to create a business development and assistance program.

While the majority of the Council approved spending ARPA funds on the garbage fee subsidy for every customer, Councilmembers Andrew Nosrati and Nicole Larson were against it, along with a couple of residents who spoke out during public comment.

Ron Bridegroom and other residents were not in favor of using ARPA funds for the temporary garbage fee subsidies, but would rather see the one-time funding be used on capital projects like Columbia Pool, or other permanent parks projects, or to add funds to the RAD card so customers and local business owners could benefit.

The dissenters would rather have seen the City lower the franchise fee.

“To me, the five of you are the policy makers. One of the fundamental policy questions here, I would think, is does the City subsidize some or all of the garbage billing? The other possibility is does the City make money off of the garbage? And I think it would be very simple for the policy makers to say ‘no, the City is going to cover its costs and that’s all its going to do. We’re not going to have an underhand, invisible tax on people and make money that way,’” Bridegroom said.

“Are we, as an organization, going to absorb the cuts or are we going have the residents pay it?” asked Nosrati.

“I think we could make bigger impact if we made it a general low-income and medium-income assist program and include monies already allocated towards the senior discount and just have it low-income,” said Councilmember Larson.

Mayor Amy Bublak said that having a low-income subsidy program would create more administrative costs and she wanted something that would benefit every resident of Turlock.

“Here’s this opportunity where we’re all facing, all of us, are facing whatever the costs are going up. And we’re going to face it for the next couple of years, we know that. Inflation’s coming, we can’t hide it. So, to have something that is going to reach everyone is the only fair thing to do. It’s not about if you have money or don’t. (The City of Turlock finance department) has nine and half people working utility bills right now. If we start and go, ‘statistically, we want to do it for only people at this…income,’ then you’re going to have to hire more people, then what have we done? We’ve wasted more money to figure out if we’ve achieved it. If we just try and make a gesture with the money that came because of COVID, and everyone one of us was touched negatively by it, we do make some gesture. It’s not forever, but it is something,” said Bublak.