El Sereno resident Scott Toland is another unhappy customer of L.A.'s new refuse and recycling program.
Toland recently learned that the monthly trash bill at the 10-unit condominium complex where he lives could double — at a minimum. And that's only if his homeowner association cuts back on regular trash pickup.
The reason? An assortment of extra fees, all backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council as part of RecycLA.
Universal Waste Systems, the neighborhood's designated refuse hauler, sent Toland an estimate indicating the company would charge $43.30 a month to open the gate to the complex, which requires a remote control clicker, for the property's regular trash.
The company added the same $43.30 "access charge" for recycling pickup. And it tacked on $303 in monthly "distance charges," which compensate a hauler for moving trash bins across the parking lot to the street, where they are emptied.
"No other trash company has ever charged us to open the gate or drive down the driveway, ever. So I think that's outrageous," said Toland, who recently created a video highlighting the extra fees.
Businesses, landlords and condominium owners are voicing alarm over the additional charges being imposed under RecycLA, an environmental initiative championed by Garcetti that is aimed at diverting trash from landfills, putting cleaner-burning trash trucks on the street and creating safer conditions for refuse workers.
The price of the new program is based on the frequency of pickup, the number of refuse bins and the size of those containers. But companies are also allowed to charge extra to open a locked gate with a keypad or to move trash bins more than 100 feet or 200 feet.
A Garcetti aide defended the pricing arrangement, saying it provides more transparency and accountability on the recycling and trash collection offered citywide.
"RecycLA gives Angelenos the opportunity to pay only for the services they want, instead of being charged a single rate that doesn't always take into account their individual needs," said mayoral spokesman George Kivork.
The council awarded seven companies the exclusive right to haul away refuse in specific sections of the city — 10-year contracts valued at $3.5 billion. The program covers an estimated 80,000 customers and is expected to generate $15.6 million this year for the city's general fund, which pays for basic services.
The 10-month transition to new trash haulers has been bumpy so far, with customers across the city complaining about missed pickup and significantly higher bills.
Last week, Councilman Mitch O'Farrell said businesses in his district have been expressing panic over the changes. And Councilman Mike Bonin recently criticized the program's implementation, saying it's "proving to be as unpopular as the botched rollout of a new billing system at the Department of Water and Power."
Sanitation officials say the transition has been relatively smooth, considering the complexity of the program and the huge number of customers changing trash haulers. They also contend that many customers will be able to scale back their trash bills once they have a consultation with their designated refuse hauler.
Customers who recycle more will be able to cut back on the frequency of regular trash pickups — resulting in less expensive service, said Dan Meyers, one of the Bureau of Sanitation officials helping to oversee RecycLA.
"These are fees that are set as maximum fees in the contract," Meyers said. "But we also urge our [trash haulers] to work with the customers to the greatest extent possible" to find cost savings.
In Toland's case, a representative from Universal Waste Systems visited the El Sereno property and provided four written cost scenarios — all of them showing big increases.
The least expensive proposal would take the monthly bill from $303 to $622. Another estimate, which included a can for green waste, would triple the monthly bill. And yet another, which would keep the same number of regular trash pickups, would bump the bill up to $1,185.
Each scenario has extra charges that "would destroy our budget — absolutely destroy it," Toland said. "We're not a business. We're 10 households."
Universal Waste Systems has offered to meet with Toland again this week to look for other ways of paring back his bill. But Toland is not the only customer dismayed by the changes.
Hibba Ablahed, who owns a 10-unit apartment building in Highland Park, said she too has been hit with monthly distance charges. A bill sent by Universal Waste Systems showed her building faces an extra $433 in fees to cover the cost of moving trash bins more than 100 feet to the street.
Ablahed said that amount, when combined with an overall increase in refuse rates, will add more than $6,000 to her yearly refuse bill. And because the building is covered by the city's rent stabilization ordinance, she cannot pass the cost on to her tenants.
Representatives of Universal Waste Systems declined to discuss the particulars of Ablahed's bill. But Joe Matz, the company's L.A. area district manager, said in an email that the extra charges were negotiated with city officials and an industry consulting firm — and represent "the true cost to provide collection services."
Trash haulers need extra time, he said, to pull trash bins longer distances or get inside "secured" properties.
"The fees are meant to compensate for that additional time," Matz said.
The added charges are also sparking complaints on the city's Westside, where Athens Services now serves as the city's designated refuse hauler.
Peter Cohen, who lives in the Bougainvillea Townhomes complex, said Athens sent him an email saying that under the new system, his building would see nearly $700 per month in distance and access fees. Athens, which has been the trash hauler for the 20-unit complex for nearly a decade, had never charged those types of fees before, Cohen said.
Under one pricing scenario, Bougainvillea Townhomes would see its monthly bill jump from $509 to $1,350, according to an email Athens sent to Cohen. That increase, Cohen said, assumes that the frequency of pickup would be reduced for one of the property's two regular trash bins.
Cohen, who is the treasurer of his homeowner association, said he suspects most property owners don't know about the new fees. "Because if they did, they would be screaming," he said.
Asked about Cohen's complex, Athens President Greg Loughnane said the property has been "flagged for management review based on extra service fees disproportionate to the base rates."
"This location will require an additional field audit and follow-up with the customer," he wrote.
Loughnane described RecycLA as "a fundamentally different service" than the previous refuse system, which allowed property owners to negotiate directly with trash haulers. RecycLA requires the purchase of new cleaner-fuel trucks, new technology and new jobs to handle consumer outreach, he said.
"In many cases," he said, "the cost of these added benefits made rate changes unavoidable."