Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Trash Stickers Redux

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water!”

In a first for this blog readers properly identifying this allusion will be entered into a sweepstakes drawing. The prize? The assignment to write the next article on trash stickers, should it prove necessary. At this point I’m beginning to feel like Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day”.

As incredible as it may seem, Chairman James Mullen proposed for the third time a reduction in the trash sticker fee at the last meeting of the Board of Selectmen. His articulated rationale for an action that will affect town services: “It’s too high”.

Now, it is election season and Mr. Mullen is running for re-election. So I suppose the reasoning makes sense—to Mr. Mullen. But surely the Board as a whole recognizes the fiscal folly of cutting revenues when we have a sizeable budget shortfall already.

Member John Shields then reported on a meeting with representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Based on his recollection of the meeting he made the following claims.

# Trash sticker fees must be based on the cost of trash collection alone.
# Any other costs of the solid waste program must come from the tax levy.
# Since our sticker fee income exceeds the cost of trash collection alone, we are in violation of state regulation and must reduce the trash sticker fee.

Each of these statements is incorrect. I spoke with Joseph Lambert, one of the DEP employees in the meeting with Mr. Shields. When I told him about what had been communicated at the Selectmen’s meeting, he offered that Mr. Shields must have been confused about the information provided and that the meeting was long and complicated.

There is no regulation or law, nor has there ever been, controlling what communities can charge for a unit based fee for trash. The DEP does make a recommendation for new communities just starting a “Pay As You Throw” program. They recommend a “two-tiered” system in which the unit fee covers the variable cost [the disposal or tipping fee, not the collection cost] and all the remaining fixed costs are covered by an annual fee or through the tax levy. The purpose of this is to make sure communities collect enough money in the early days of the program. Until a recycling rate is established, usually after two or three years, it is difficult to estimate just how much trash will need to be disposed of. An initial two-tiered structure assures all costs are covered.

As Mr. Lambert said to me, Milton is not a new community, having operated a PAYT program for some years.

As of September 2006, there were 120 communities with PAYT programs in Massachusetts. Of this, 97 had “two-tiered” or “multi-tiered” programs. Milton has a two-tiered program--part of the cost is covered by trash sticker fees and part by the property tax levy. Of the 97 communities, 60 have a two-tiered system in which residents are charged both a fee per unit [trash sticker or bag or barrel] and a flat annual fee.

So our fee level does not violate any rules, regulations, or laws.

What about the charge that the fee is too high? Too high on what basis? The current level covers about 2/3 of our total solid waste program cost of approximately $1.5 million. This is not too different from the historical levels since we closed the landfill in January 1999 and assumed a new, significant cost to dispose of our trash. And as I noted in an earlier article on this subject, a number of South Shore communities charge more than we for trash.


If we cut these fees we’ll need to cut services to make up the difference. This Saturday the Warrant Committee will have it’s famous all-day Saturday meeting. This traditionally signals the end of a long budgetary process of many months-- the day on which the committee makes an attempt to arrive at a balanced budget by making necessary cuts. By all reports they have been struggling with a $5 million shortfall. To precipitously withdraw an additional $300,000-$400,000 from their planned revenue stream at this late date is the height of irresponsibility.

Compounding matters is Chairman Mullen’s suggestions for service cuts, suggestions that do not even equal the lost revenue. We don’t have a Mayoral form of government in Milton. Budget allocations are made by the Town Meeting based on recommendations made by the Warrant Committee. It is these two bodies that will decide how budget cuts will be made, not the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Perhaps most disturbing were comments made while announcing his cuts. He publicly and unnecessarily disparaged the duties of a loyal town employee, and grossly mischaracterized the responsibilities of the position. People who work for the town should be treated with the same kind of respect as everyone else.

The Selectmen will be discussing and voting on the trash sticker fee reduction this Thursday at 7:30 pm. Last chance for comment.


Anonymous Carolyn Newman said...

Jaws. I would like to donate my prize to my dear friend Jim May. He needs it more than I do.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many trash stickers does it take to throw out a selectman?

8:48 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Looks like Jim might win the prize!

I'm sure he'll be thanking you Carolyn.

5:40 PM  

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