SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Bear-proof trash cans could soon become mandatory for thousands of people in Seminole County. A majority of county commissioners told News 6 they now support requiring the bear-proof cans, which would change a program that exists on a voluntary basis currently.
It's a proposal that has sparked a huge debate in the county. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said the cans can help to reduce bear encounters by 95 percent, but the catch is, they are expensive.
With a bear hunt recently completed and talks of a second, News 6 anchor Lisa Bell wanted to get answers and find out if people really are leaving their trash unsecured.
Homeowners in the epicenter of bear activity know all too well what can happen when their trash is left unsecured.
"You put the trash out, and you wake up and in the morning and then your trash is strung out all over the street and the yard and drug down the road," said Tony Almirall, a Seminole County resident.
"One time, I decided, 'Well, maybe if I put a bungee cord over the top of the can.,'" said Mel Fickes, another resident. "And the next morning, lo and behold, the whole garbage can was gone."
But News 6 wanted to know; How often does that really happen?
There have been at least three reported bear attacks in Seminole County since 2012, including in the gated Wingfield North subdivision. A woman who was walking her dog was mauled.
News 6 went to that area the night before trash pickup. We found most did not have their garbage out. If they did, the majority were already in bear-proof trash cans, but we still found a handful of homes with a potential bear buffet in full view.
"This is a serious problem and everybody recognizes it," said Lee Constantine, county commissioner for District 3.
Constantine is leading the fight for mandatory bear-proof trash cans for about 24,000 homes and businesses west of Interstate 4.
He said the county has plenty of money in the solid-waste trust fund to cover the cost, but he'd also support charging people in the area a fee, possibly as low as a dollar a month.
"We know the solution," said Constantine. "So to do nothing or to wait and see if we have another, God forbid, mauling or something, I mean, is just, in my opinion, unacceptable."
But up until now, requiring bear-resistant trash cans has met resistance among county commissioners.
Constantine said it just takes one unsecured can to attract a bear, and even waiting until the morning to put it out doesn't always work. News 6 obtained photos from a homeowner in Longwood who put her trash out at 7:30 a.m., showing a bear enjoying a meal.
"If people put it out at 6 o'clock, what's also on the streets at around 6 o'clock, until they pick up the garbage at 8 o'clock? Children waiting for buses," said Constantine. "We're playing roulette here."
News 6 reached out to every member on the Seminole County commission. Chairwoman and District 5 Commissioner Brenda Carey told News 6 her position on mandating trash cans has evolved and she now supports the idea.
"I've always supported bear-proof cans," said Carey. "That's why I worked with our haulers and FWC to get a voluntary program in place. We got a $20,000 grant from FWC, enough to allow for 500 bear-proof garbage cans to get a $40 grant to offset the cost. We've extended all of those grant funds as of today on the voluntary program. We are looking at the next step, which is moving to the mandatory program. I've tried to take all of the information I've gained from talking to the citizens who live out there, then take all of that into consideration to come up with a program that works for everyone in the west side who encounters bears."
Commissioner Bob Dallari also said he supports the idea.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions -- including how to accommodate people who physically can't operate the cans, and who would pay for them?
"There's a lot of details that need to be worked out, the devil's always in the details," said Carey. "I think that the users should pay for it. The fact that voluntarily, they've already put out 500 of them in the community, they've shown that they're willing to. In Seminole County, you pay your garbage bill on your tax bill, so everybody in the county is already paying $425 for their garbage to be picked up."
But overall, at least three of the five members are now on board, and a simple majority is all it takes to make the cans mandatory.
"We know what the problem is and we know how to fix it, it's just going to take us a little bit of time to get there," said Constantine.
"It isn't like any manufacturer has 25,000 bear-proof cans sitting on the shelf, waiting for an order, so it's going to take a little bit of time once a decision is made," said Carey.
So it's unclear how long it could take before the cans are at every home, but the county commission is working right now on a draft of an ordinance to fine people for leaving their trash unsecured. That should come up for a vote in December. It will likely be similar to what FWC already has in place.
FWC told News 6 since the beginning of the year, they've issued one citation to someone in the county for leaving their garbage out and attracting bears.