2016-03-04 / Front Page

Town may trash PAYT program

Measure will appear on June ballot
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen were split at a recent meeting over whether the town should trash its controversial “pay-as-you-throw” (PAYT) program, but was unanimous on one thing – the question should go to voters.

At a joint Feb. 16 session with the town’s volunteer budget board, selectmen at first voted 5-2 to end the program, which compels residents to buy specially-colored trash bags in order to have their trash picked up by the town’s contracted curbside collection service. That decision would have added the $435,000 cost of the trash collection program into the town’s annual operating budget, driving the mil rate up 23 cents per $1,000 of valuation. That would have meant an extra $69 per year on the annual property tax bill of a home assessed at $300,000.

But Selectman Ed Karytko called that a bargain. According to his math, if the family living in that same home threw out just one purple 33-gallon bag per week, at a cost of $3 each, it would pay $156 per year.

Karytko also argued that shifting the cost of trash collection into the town’s operating budget would also shift some of the cost onto seasonal residents, who buy fewer bags by virtue of only living in town part of the year, but who, conversely, tend to own properties that are valued at several standard deviations above the median.

“If we go to just putting it into the mil rate, then we are going to capture that money from those people, and then the people with less assessed value on their homes won’t be paying as much,” Karytko said.

“We can argue fairness seven ways to Sunday, and we have,” budget board vice chairman John Costin said. “But you’re just not giving people any incentive to recycle.”

The fear that residents might not recycle as much if not forced to buy special trash bags, was also cited by the dissenting selectmen, Deborah Beal and Shiloh Schulte. Both also said the decision should go before residents at the annual town meeting in June.

“We just took this out of voters’ hands,” Beal said.

“And I think that’s a mistake,” said Schulte.

In response, Selectman Richard Morin, who had made the original motion, called for a do-over, and the board voted 7-0 to send the question to voters. That decision was backed by a unanimous vote of the budget board.

Kennebunk Finance Director Joel Downs said he still needed to run the calculations, but it appears likely that if voters do decide to scrap PAYT, the bump it will create in the town’s annual operating budget will likely trigger a corresponding ballot question. Rarely seen in Kennebunk over the last decade, the so-called LD1 initiative – named for its legislative bill number in 2005, the year it was adopted – requires voter assent whenever the annual increase in a municipal budget outpaces the calculation that includes the increase in local property valuations and statewide incomes.

The tax levy limit has not yet been calculated for the upcoming budget, Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said last week.

The decision to send the fate of PAYT to voters was actually third in line after the selectmen’s majority decision to scrap it and a compromise measure presented by Selectman Christopher Cluff, as worked out earlier by a selectboard subcommittee.

That idea would have added $301,795 to the annual budget, while keeping the bags in place. The budget hike would have paid for the actual curbside collection, Cluff said, while the cost of the bags would have paid for the “tipping fee” the town pays to have the trash hauled from the local transfer station to area landfills.

That proposal would have meant a 15- cent mil rate increase, Cluff said, although he also called on selectmen to lower the cost of the PAYT bags by an amount to be determined later.

However, budget board member Al Searles railed against the proposal.

“This is just a tax shift. It does nothing to solve the problem,” he said.

“Well, that depends on how you define solving the problem,” Cluff said

“Well I said last year we should get rid of the bags altogether,” Searles shot back. “Otherwise, it’s as obvious as the nose on your face this problem is going to be back here next year. All you’re doing here is trying to decide what size is the can and how far down the road are we going to kick it.”

“There is a philosophical debate at the bottom of this that most people agree is never going to get resolved, because we’ve been arguing about it for 12 to 15 years,” Costin said.

That problem was a deficit in the PAYT program, which this year forced selectmen to draw $86,000 from the town’s undesignated surplus account to cover the operating shortfall.

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) but this year’s projects almost three times the negative number on last year’s balance sheet ($36,865). The problem, selectmen agree, is that residents stuff as much as will fit into the PAYT bags, while the board has been loath to increase the bag fee for fear of a political backlash.

Still, several selectmen, including Morin and Chairman Kevin Donovan, appeared fed up with the bags.

“I just want them gone,” Donovan said, arguing that the ease of the town’s new single-sort recycling program, which no longer requires residents to sort recyclable items by type, will make up for any expected decrease in recycling that might come about from doing away with the PAYT bags.

But Schulte was not so sure.

“My argument is that then there’s no reason for people to recycle,” he said. “There’s no reason for people to not throw away absolutely everything. Your trash amount is going to go up so your tipping fees are going to go up.”

The town’s energy efficiency advisory committee sent a letter to selectmen unanimously opposing an end to the PAYT program.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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