2016-02-05 / Front Page

Town weighs trash bag fee hike

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Faced with an $86,000 annual deficit in its curbside trash collection program, selectmen capped a lengthy discussion on a solution at their Jan. 26 meeting by tabling the matter until March 7.

By a 4-2 vote, with Selectmen Dan Boothby and Chris Cluff opposed, the board voted to put off a decision on increasing the price of the town’s colored Pay-As-You- Throw (PAYT) trash bags until its March 7 meeting.

That, they hoped, will allow breathing room for a better decision, although the only viable option seemed to be to increase the price of the bags.

“If you don’t increase the cost of the bags, then you have to raise the mil rate, which increases the cost for everyone, including those who aren’t using the system,” Selectman Shiloh Schulte said. “I don’t see how we’re going to get out of this without increasing the costs.”

However, when Cluff moved to increase the costs of the bags by 33 percent – increasing the cost to residents for blue 15-gallon bags from $1.45 to $1.95, each, and the price of purple or green 33-gallon bags from $3 to $4 – no one on the board, including Schulte, offered the second needed to put it to a vote.

The PAYT program has run a deficit in all but one year out of the last 11. That shortfall was greatest in 2012 (at $120,454) and this year’s projects to be similar, or about three times the negative number on last year’s balance sheet ($36,865).

The fact that the July 1 switch to single sort recycling did not engender a savings prompted Selectman Ed Karytko to wonder aloud if there might be something amiss with Pine Tree Waste, the town’s new hauler.

“Is it possible somehow, some way, that trucks are being put into the system from other towns but are being billed to us?” he asked. “This program was billed to be able to save us money on the tipping fees, and it’s not doing that. So, I have to ask the question, why?”

“Honestly, I’d have to say, yes,” Finance Director Joel Downs said. “I don’t go to Pine Tree and audit them.”

It was presumed that the town would see greater recycling numbers when residents no longer had to sort items by material. However, while the town’s recycling rate is at 50 percent, the total tonnage last year was 1,255 tons, down from 1,526 in 2014, and the lowest total since 2007. Single sort was in place from July 1 and, through Dec. 31, and accounted for 796 tons of material. Meanwhile, Pine Tree actually picked up more garbage than the year before – 1,768 tons, vs. 1,754.

“In my mind, there’s no way the tonnage should be the same as it was last year with this new system we’ve put in place,” Karytko said.

Most on the board agreed that one issue is that, with non-compliance with the PAYT rules at less than 1 percent of all customers, the deciding factor is residents stuffing as much as possible into each bag they must buy to dispose of their trash.

“Our problem is that people are putting bricks in their bags, apparently,” Cluff said.

Meanwhile, Selectman Richard Morin voiced frustration, saying that when selectmen chose a new solid waste vendor last year, the idea had been that a new program would be installed that would do away with the PAYT bags.

“I don’t know where the system fell apart, but it’s not what I voted on,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to be polite, but we’re still having the same discussion about how much is the bag, and haven’t discussed any other way to price this out,” Morin said.

Tibbetts said be simply doesn’t have enough information yet to offer an alternative, given the change in vendors and the switch to single-sort recycling at the start of the fiscal year.

“We only have six months of data so far. It’s kind of hard to base a decision like that on six months,” he said.

Left undecided, at least by a formal vote, was how to plug the hole in the current fiscal year, although Schulte got a nod from Tibbetts when asking, after the vote to delay a decision in increasing PAYT bag fees, if it would come out of the town’s undesignated surplus fund.

That seemed the only alternative on the table.

“We’d have to go to $12 a bag to get back what we’ve already lost,” said Cluff.

But even his 33 percent increase had selectmen fearing a public backlash.

“I think we’re getting to a point where trash bags are getting so expensive that we are going to find more people circumnavigating this program, or we’ll find more trash on the side of the road,” Selectman Deborah Beal said.

The problem selectmen will have to wrestle with on March 7 will be how to cover the annual shortfall without increasing bag fees.

“I’d be pleased as punch to get rid of this silly program altogether and never have to talk about pay-as-you-throw again, but I can’t see adding a quarter to the mil rate to do it,” Cluff said.

However, taking the money out of the town’s surplus account on a perpetual basis also is seen as a poor solution.

“That just throws good money after bad,” Cluff said. “We’re going to continue to bury ourselves even further if we don’t address the problem.

“We’re going to find a solution,” Morin said. “There has got to be a solution.”

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