RICHMOND -- A showdown is brewing over the county's trash, one that pits the city of Richmond against its neighbors in a fight bound to get stinky.
Nearly 30 years ago, five West Contra Costa cities formed a group to comply with state laws requiring municipalities to cut down on the amount of trash sent to landfills. They called themselves the West Contra Costa Integrated Waste Management Authority, or RecycleMore, and set about diverting the region's trash. Now the entity has saved an estimated $7 million in reserves, mostly from the sale of recyclables like cans and bottles. Richmond wants the money distributed among the members. It stands to receive $3 million, which it would like to transfer to its general fund.
But the other cities say the cash needs to be held in reserve in order to increase diversion rates to 75 percent by 2025 as mandated by state law.
"What Richmond wants to do is a backdoor way of taxing the ratepayer," said Pete Murray, a RecycleMore board member and mayor of Pinole. "We need this money for the new improvements we have planned. If we don't have it, it means rates may have to be increased."
Richmond representatives on the board argue the money is rightfully theirs since the city's residents make up more than half of RecycleMore's customers. And they've threatened to leave the group unless they get what they want.
"We want to retain a positive relationship with our neighbors and be united," said Richmond Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, one of three Richmond members on the board. "But if that doesn't happen, it may be in our interest to leave the Joint Powers Authority."
Richmond Councilman Eduardo Martinez, elected last November, seconds the sentiment, calling the money "an exorbitant amount that's just sitting there."
Richmond is counting on El Cerrito for the crucial fourth vote it needs to access the funds, a decision that will be made at RecycleMore's next meeting on July 30. Greg Lyman, an El Cerrito councilman and the city's representative on the body, did not respond to numerous emails and messages.
Critics fear that if the money is passed out among members -- Pinole, Hercules, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Richmond and unincorporated parts of the county -- it will spell the death of the group.
"If you take all the money from the JPA, it's like jumping from a 10-story building," Murray said. "You can only do it once and you don't recover ... Richmond has a parochial view of the situation. It's not the city's money, but their ratepayers'. They shouldn't be using it to balance their budget."
Dan Romero, the vice mayor of Hercules and that city's rep on the board, said it was important for the group to act judiciously instead of dispersing the funds.
"We have a new contract and we don't know what revenues are coming, so it's important that we keep the money that we do have," Romero said.
Like Murray, he wonders about the legality of using ratepayers' money for cities' general expenses. But a bigger issue may be one of trust, especially amid rumblings that Richmond may leave the group if it doesn't get its way.
"My concern is that we distribute the money and Richmond still walks," Romero said. "There's a lot of things, and the way Richmond has conducted themselves, that leads me to be suspicious. They haven't been very forthright with us."
Beckles, Martinez and Richmond Councilman Jael Myrick, another JPA member, say that Richmond only wants its fair share of the cash. And they hint that the authority needs Richmond more than the city needs it because the city's own garbage collector, Richmond Sanitary Service, already does a fair amount of recycling.
"Every city can get money from the reserves," Beckles said. "But we also don't want to be subsidizing the JPA because we pay so much into the system."
The issue will be discussed at the next meeting of the West Contra Costa County Integrated Waste Management Authority from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at San Pablo City Hall, 13831 San Pablo Ave.