2016-04-22 / Front Page

Trashing PAYT no easy task

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — After reversing itself for the second time in two months, the board of selectmen will now wait on an attorney’s opinion to find out if voters will get a chance to weigh in on the town’s controversial pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) method of trash collection.

PAYT compels residents to buy specially colored trash bags in order to have their garbage picked up by the town’s contracted curbside collection service. However, selectmen have historically been reluctant to antagonize voters by hiking the price of the bags to cover actual costs, and, so, the program typically runs a deficit. This year, selectmen had to pull $86,000 from the town’s undesignated surplus fund to cover the operating shortfall in solid waste removal.

On Jan. 26, selectmen voted 4-2 to put off a decision on raising bag prices in order to study alternatives. That new path was expected to include simply eliminating PAYT bags, a concept some, like Selectman Richard

Morin, said they had thought was going to happen as part of hiring a new trash hauler last year.

“I don’t know where the system fell apart, but it’s not what I voted on,” Morin said at the time, 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.” A subcommittee of selectmen, led by Christopher Cluff, came back on Feb. 16 with a proposal to add $301,795 to the town’s annual operating budget, while retaining the bags. The hike would have paid for actual curbside collection, Cluff said, while the cost of the bags would have covered the tipping fee the town pays to have Pine Tree Waste haul material from the transfer station on Sea Road to landfills. That fee is $73.50 per ton.

That proposal would have meant a 15-cent increase per $1,000 of assessed value in the property tax rate. However, it would also have resulted in actually lowering the cost of the bags, Cluff said. PAYT bags currently cost $1.45 each for blue, 15-gallon bags, and $3 each for the purple 33-gallon variety.

Instead, selectmen voted 5-2 to simply end PAYT once and for all, scrapping the bags and adding the full $435,000 cost of solid waste removal into the regular town budget. That decision would drive the mil rate up 23 cents per $1,000 of valuation.

That would have meant an extra $69 per year on the annual tax bill of a home assessed at $300,000. However, some, like 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. Killing PAYT and paying for curbside pickup as a municipal service also means shifting much of the cost to seasonal and presumably richer residents, Karytko argued.

However, the dissenting side of the 5-2 vote, Selectmen Shiloh Schulte and Deborah Beal, argued that without the punitive price of bags to contend with, residents might slack off on recycling.

Already, selectmen were stymied by an increase in solid waste collection and decrease in recycling tonnage since Pine Tree took over the Kennebunk routes on July 1, 2015.

While Kennebunk’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. That seemed odd, selectmen said, considering that Pine Tree instituted so-called single-sort recycling, meaning residents no longer had to sort recyclables by material type. The conventional wisdom had been that the ease of being able to simply toss all recyclables into a single bin would increase overall tonnage. Instead, it was the regular refuse that shot up, from 1,754 tons in 2014 to 1,768 tons in 2015.

Under post-vote pressure from Schulte and Beal, as well as budget board member John Costin, selectmen undid their vote to scrap PAYT and instead voted 7-0 to let voters decide. The Feb. 16 meeting was a joint session with the budget board, which backed taking the issue to voters with a unanimous decision of its own.

But then came the April 12 selectmen’s meeting, and a decision on how the actual warrant article would look. The draft article came with a fiscal note, explaining to voters that they could pay for solid waste removal by adding $435,000 to the town’s annual operating budget and incurring a 23-cent hike in the mil rate, or they could maintain the status quo, which would mean a 35 percent increase in the cost of PAYT bags, to $4.05 per purple bag, and $1.95, each, for the smaller, blue bag.

However, dumping meant a two-pronged vote. A 2005 law – known as LD1 – requires voter assent whenever the annual increase in a municipal budget outpaces local income growth. The calculation actually uses statewide incomes, but tempers it by factoring the annual increase in local property valuations. That second warrant article asked voter permission to increase the town’s tax levy limit by $435,000. Karytko called that number disingenuous, noting that an increase of $435,000 to the operating budget would not push it over the LD1 limit by that same amount.

“And it’s not the trash that’s driving LD1, it’s the entire budget,” Karytko added.

However, just the possibility of an LD1 question on the warrant – something rarely seen in Kennebunk – and the questions it might create among voters, was enough to scare some selectmen off of their earlier zeal for ending PAYT.

“I’ve had a complete change of mind,” board Chairman Kevin Donovan said. “I know if I was a professional politician, you’d say I flip-flopped, but I can’t in good conscience vote to go over the LD1 property tax levy limit for trash. Not when we have an alternative. I have a severe problem with that.”

Morin has stumped for a system that would charge residents by the weight of the trash they toss – the robot arm on the Pine Tree hauler is said to be able to take precise measurements – instead of per bag. One reason for the PAYT deficit, Morin and others have argued, is that people tend to overstuff bags. By charging for trash by its actual weight, Morin has said, PAYT could be righted, even at the cost of hiring someone to administer measuring and billing.

However, Beal argued that the current single-sort recycling system is too new to be tinkered with, while Pine Tree is still in the first year of a 10-year contract with the town.

Beal also countered that ending PAYT promises to discourage recycling, a position taken by several members of the audience at the April 12 selectmen’s meeting. Most argued that switching from a per-bag assessment to a plan that spreads the cost town wide was not fair to those who do take pains to recycle.

“Who likes the colored bags? No one. But I’m willing to be inconvenienced because there is no away when you throw away garbage,” said Rachel Phipps, who sat on the board of selectmen when PAYT was instituted.

Phipps’ husband, John Costin, said his household spends “less than $69” on PAYT bags per year, a number that puts them on the losing side of Karytko’s earlier calculation.

“Shouldn’t we be encouraged for throwing away very little garbage and incurring very little costs to the town? I think so,” Costin said. “But this change rewards people for throwing away a lot of garbage.”

Meanwhile, Sharon Staz, former general manager of the Kennebunk Light and Power District, pointed out that transferring the full cost of trash collection into the general budget will hit some residents twice.

Most people who live in condominiums pay a condo association to haul trash, she said. If PAYT ends, those folks will also pay for the same service in their property tax bill.

“Those that are throwing away the most ought to pay for it,” Staz said. “If that means increasing the price of the bags, then darn it, increase the price of the bags.”

Among board members, only Karytko and Dan Boothby stuck by the original decision to send the question of how to fund PAYT to voters.

However, selectmen agreed that someone on the prevailing side of the 5-2 vote may need to move for reconsideration of the question when the board meets next, on April 26.

That’s because the budget board voted unanimously to send the question to voters. The town charter grants the budget board the authority to propose spending articles for the annual town meeting warrant. Thus the 5-2 decision of selectmen April 22 to pull the PAYT question does not fully excise it from the ballot. It remains a part of the warrant due to the 7-0 budget board vote on Feb. 16.

However, Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said that in essence, every budget question is a policy issue. He said he would return to the April 26 meeting with an opinion from attorney William Dale.

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

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