Battle lines drawn over city trash fees
Rockland — While some city officials are trying to convince the citizens of Rockland to buy into the pay-as-you-throw method of paying for trash disposal, others in the community have launched a petition drive aimed at defeating it, saying it will cost residents more.
The debate centers on the question: what is the fairest way to pay for the disposal of household trash that is dumped at the city transfer station? Trash is sent to Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington where it is burned. The waters of this debate are muddied by the existence of the massive dump quarry at the Rockland Solid Waste Facility, which is being filled with construction and demolition debris.
City Solid Waste Director David St. Laurent said the landfill quarry and the transfer station are completely separate issues. Both the quarry and the transfer station are located on Limerock Street, and the facility is run by St. Laurent and a staff of five employees.
In the past, the city dumped household trash in the quarry, but St. Laurent said that stopped after the state banned household trash from landfills. Since that time, only construction and demolition debris, items including Sheetrock, furniture and shingles, can be dumped in the quarry.
Household trash is brought to the transfer station. From there it is trucked to PERC to be disposed of, costing the city money. This cost has been paid for in the past by having city residents pay $65 per year to buy a permit to dump as much household trash as they like in the station.
City officials saw several problems with this system. First, it did not cover the full cost of sending the trash to PERC. In addition, a resident who carefully recycles items such as cardboard, plastic and cans, reducing the amount of trash they produce, pays the same amount for a sticker each year as a person who does nothing to recycle. A single person who creates only one or two bags of trash per week pays the same rate as a large family that produces more than twice as much trash per week.
St. Laurent said the city has also noticed that while the number of those registering for dump stickers has decreased, the amount of trash going into the transfer station has increased. There is concern among city officials that some groups of residents are getting together and sharing one sticker to cut down on their trash disposal costs.
Earlier this month the City Council voted 3-2 to adopt a pay-per-bag system that deals with these issues. This will go into full effect in May 2015, because the city has to honor the stickers it issued before the change went into effect. The pay-per-bag fees are set at $2.25 per 33-gallon bag, $1.50 per 22-gallon bag and $0.75 for 12-gallon bags. People will also be able to pay by the ton if they prefer.
Audra Caler-Bell of Rockland, who prepared a report on regional solid waste management for the Midcoast Economic Development District last year, compares trash disposal to any other utility. People pay for water, sewer and electricity based on how much they use those services. The pay-as-you-throw model does the same thing for trash.
She argues that when you consider the cost of trash disposal for the community as a whole, pay-as-you-throw is always cheaper. It creates an incentive to recycle and to produce less trash for the users.
The report, which analyzes several solid waste disposal facilities in the Midcoast, recommends pay-as-you-throw to municipalities that have not adopted it. It argues the communities that use this system have lower disposal rates and higher recycling rates than the communities that do not.
"Before signing the petition calling for a special election, I would ask every resident to consider what is the fairest way to pay for trash disposal?" Mayor Larry Pritchett said in an email statement to members of the local press. "...This approach is a good way to reduce the amount of waste burned and reduce the number of tons the city has to pay more than $100 per ton to dispose of. Towns that have implemented this type of system have lowered their solid waste disposal cost by over a $250,000 annually."
The city took out an ad in The Free Press July 24 presenting information about the pay-as-you-throw change and the solid waste facility operation.
City Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson, who voted against the change, argued that decisions made by the City Council in the past "put us where we are today," and her concerns center on the way the city has handled revenue generated by the landfill.
While disposing of household trash by residents is a cost the city has to pay, taking in construction and demolition debris and dumping it in the 300-foot-deep, 7-acre quarry is a money-maker for the city.
In 2006, the city began a plan to accelerate the filling of the quarry. As a result, debris from other parts of the state is trucked into the Rockland solid waste facility.
St. Laurent said that at the time, the city had major problems with the landfill, including violations and non-compliance warnings from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and major odor problems. The thinking at the time was to fill it and close it as soon as possible.
The city contracted with companies to bring in large volumes of debris to the landfill. Solid waste is a volume business, St. Laurent said, so the companies get a better rate dumping in volume.
He said no household trash goes into the quarry, and no out-of-state waste goes into it, though he added there is no rule or law against taking in out-of-state waste.
Dickerson raised several concerns about this process. For one, she noted that one hauler that brought in waste failed to pay the city for it.
St. Laurent confirmed that one hauler failed to pay the city $150,000 it owed for dumping solid waste in the quarry. He said it went under during the recession.
The city addressed this concern in the ad it published in The Free Press, stating: "You may have heard... Companies have not paid for the disposal of waste at the city owned landfill. ...Here are the facts. ...96 percent of the construction/demolition debris disposed of in the landfill has been paid for. During the recession, one disposal company became insolvent, and went out of business, leaving a significant unpaid balance with the city and many other creditors. However, even with a bad recession, bad debt has been just 4 percent of landfill revenue."
Dickerson also noted that the solid waste department pays $92,000 from landfill revenues to the city general fund each year as an administrative fee. She said she has not been able to get an answer as to what it is for. St. Laurent confirmed this amount.
She said she was told if the money did not go from the solid waste department into the general fund, it would mean raising city property taxes.
Some argue money from landfill revenue should be used to pay for closing the landfill, rather than paying for other city needs.
Dickerson also questions the wisdom of the city spending $6,000 to buy special bags to be used in the pay-per-bag program. She argues that is money spent on bags simply to be thrown away.
Dickerson is also very concerned about what she sees as a potential environmental nightmare caused by the disposal of this debris in the landfill. Some of it, she argues could be bad for the water table if there was ever a problem with the systems in place at the landfill.
St. Laurent argues that focusing on some of these costs and issues is misleading. He said he took the job at the at the solid waste facility because he saw an opportunity to help make things better, and he has seen improvements during his time there. The DEP issues have been addressed, he said. The odor is better than it was, but the city still has more work do on odor resolution, prompting the next phase of the gas collection system being installed, he said.
He also argued the costs of the facility are lower than those surrounding communities, adding it used to cost Rockland taxpayers $700,000 a year in property taxes to subsidize the solid waste facility.
Caler-Bell agrees. She said residents in surrounding communities are not as aware of their solid waste costs because they pay for them through their taxes. The Midcoast Economic Development District report shows Rockland having a lower net per capita cost than Thomaston, St. George, or Waldoboro.
St. Laurent argues it is misleading to point out that Rockland's tax rate is higher than surrounding communities in addition to the pay-per-bag fees. He said Rockland's tax rate is higher in part because it is a service center, and the same pattern can be seen around other cities in the state that serve as service centers. Rockland's tax rate is higher than surrounding communities, but it has a larger police force, fire department and bigger library.
He argued the solid waste department costs less than average due to the efficiency of the operation.
"Should the city take steps to reduce the 10 million pounds of trash from residents and businesses that the city currently pays to truck 57 miles to Orrington and then pays to have burned at the incinerator there?" Pritchett asked in an email July 29. "There are public health, environmental and economic reasons not to burn materials in an incinerator that can be used (or reused) in some way. Also, comparative analysis both locally and nationally have shown that municipal 'pay-per-bag systems' typically lower solid waste cost by 20 to 30 percent because residents have a cost incentive to recycle."
He adds, "No property tax dollars have gone to the operation of the land fill in six or seven years. Also, as far as I can tell, the city has among the lowest costs around for the operation of a municipal transfer station."
Going forward, St. Laurent has proposed changing from the accelerated filling of the quarry to slowing down, taking only local debris in the quarry. This would mean placing an intermediate cover on the landfill and creating a processing center at the facility to process the various kinds of solid waste going into the landfill. The cover could then be lifted as needed to add more waste to the landfill.
This change would also eliminate the truck traffic bringing in solid waste from elsewhere, which he said amounts to about three or four trucks per day.
The plan also includes adding another level of gas collection piping.
This plan could add years to the life of the landfill and eliminate the revenue generated by it.
Dickerson said the city is no longer getting the big haulers to bring in waste for the landfill because they found a better price from an impoverished community elsewhere in the state.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the residents will overturn the pay-as-you-throw plan.
"Though the costs savings through PAYT programs may seem obvious," the report states, "it can be difficult for communities to transition from traditional models at transfer stations where disposal of (household trash) for residents is incorporated in their taxes to a PAYT model. There is often an expectation from residents that they are entitled to free disposal of (trash) as their taxes pay for this expense."
"...Outreach should also be undertaken to ensure that residents understand the financial impact of changing to a PAYT model."
Correction: An earlier version of this article had inaccurate information about the odor issues at the Rockland Solid Waste Facility. It has been corrected to note that the city's efforts in recent years have improved the odor situation, but more work remains to be done including installation of the next phase of a gas collection system. It was a reporting error.
Courier Publications News Director Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 122 or email@example.com.
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Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette and news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, who also works for Courier Publications, and two children.
Dunkle has previously served as editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. He has worked as a reporter and photographer in the Midcoast since 1998.