In a narrow veto override, the Honolulu City Council upheld its decision to reinstate a recycling subsidy that saved one private scrap-yard $1.9 million in fees last year.
The 6-3 council vote, which came in a special full City Council meeting on Monday, is the latest in a long saga over whether to continue allowing recycling companies to pay a discounted rate on residue it dumps in the city landfill. The council’s override comes just six weeks after it approved a separate measure that would have eliminated the subsidy altogether.
Last month, council members approved a bill eliminating the discount. Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle signed that bill into law. He vetoed a subsequent measure, Bill 36, which reinstated a 50 percent discount that would be reduced over several years. Monday’s vote overrode that veto.
“The council has done a flip-flop, and given an overly-generous subsidy at taxpayers’ expense,” Carlisle told reporters in a press conference after the City Council meeting.
Carlisle said the discounts were created years ago, when the recycling industry needed support from the city in order to survive.
The debate over the subsidy was centered mostly on one of the largest recycling operations on Oahu, Oregon-based Schnitzer Steel. The company has advocated for the subsidy to stay in place but has refused to show the City Council financial records demonstrating why such financial assistance is necessary.
City Council member Nestor Garcia, one of three council members who voted against the override, described Schnitzer’s profitability in the meeting: “You should invest in their stock.”
Public affairs manager for Schnitzer, Jennifer Hudson, said the bill that survived is a “reasonable compromise” that “will encourage public recycling.”
Hudson gave special thanks to City Council members Ernie Martin and Stanley Chang for their willingness to work with Schnitzer in crafting the right legislation.
Members of the public turned out to testify both for and against a veto override. Some complained about Schnitzer accepting junk cars from other islands because the non-recyclable material ends up in Honolulu’s landfill.
Hudson confirmed that Schnitzer accepts about 1,000 tons in junk cars from Maui each month or 12,000 tons in a year. Given that about 25 percent of the metal from a junk car cannot be recycled, it means about 3,000 tons of Maui’s waste goes into the city landfill each year.
Others argued that if Schnitzer cuts back on operations due to losing the discount, Oahu’s junk cars will end up on the streets.
“For the history of honolulu we’ve had a lot of junk cars, and we continually pick them up,” said Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger. “By saying that because the discount is no longer available that this is going to get out of hand, frankly I don’t see it. It’s going to come down to community responsibility.”
Matt LoPresti, a vocal critic of the subsidy who has worked as a lobbyist for one of the companies opposed to it, says the council’s reversal demonstrates to him why “normal people” don’t “waste their time” trying to make their voices heard. LoPresti called council members’ position a “peculiar allegiance” to Schnitzer Steel.
Other recycling companies that benefit from the discount had advocated for its elimination, calling it “wrong” and unnecessary.
The City Council members who voted to keep the subsidy said it worried that an outright elimination would be too jarring to companies like Schnitzer. Those in favor of keeping the subsidy included: Ikaika Anderson, Romy Cachola, Chang, Tulsi Gabbard, Ann Kobayashi and Martin. Anderson voted yes “with reservations.”
But City Council member Tom Berg argued companies had plenty of time to prepare for the elimination of the subsidy, which was introduced last year.
“This has been in the hopper for some time,” Berg said. “This is not something that has occurred overnight.”