Wednesday January 9, 2013

VERNON -- How should trash be collected in Vernon?

That’s the question town officials will ask residents as they try to determine how to save money and boost recycling while also complying with a tough new state law.

One thing is clear: Vernon’s current curbside trash-collection program will change in some way. Voters, who soon will receive an informational mailing from the town, will determine the extent of that change.

"Whatever we do, we have to decide at Town Meeting this year," said Patty O’Donnell, Selectboard chairwoman. "We’re going to have to prepare for it in this budget."

The discussion was spurred by a law approved by the state Legislature last year. Among other requirements, it bans landfill disposal of recyclables and eventually also bans landfill disposal of leaf, yard and food waste.

"We have no choice," O’Donnell said. "This is the new law, and we have to abide by the law in some way."

The statute mandates that garbage haulers also pick up recycling as of 2015. And that presents a dilemma for Vernon, one of only three Windham County towns that provide townwide, curbside trash collection.

Vernon currently pays $135,000 annually for that contract with Brattleboro-based Triple T Trucking.

A new report produced by Bob Spencer, Windham Solid Waste Management District executive director, says adding curbside pickup of recyclables could double Vernon’s recycling rate to about 30 percent.

Because landfill tipping fees are levied on each ton of trash generated by the town, reaching that recycling goal could save Vernon $15,000 annually, the report concludes.

But there’s a catch: Curbside recycling actually would end up costing the town more.

"The cost savings (from recycling more trash) would be negated by the cost of adding an additional truck and collection, plus the cost to purchase recycling bins for all residents," Spencer wrote in his report to the Vernon Selectboard.

A second option could save the town money: A transfer station, possibly located at the town garage off Fort Bridgman Road, would provide a central location where residents would have to drop off their trash during scheduled hours.

That would mean the end of curbside garbage collection in Vernon.

"There are many variations on how the cost of a transfer station is covered, but usually residents are required to buy a sticker for their vehicle and then may be charged by the bag or the load," Spencer wrote.

"Residents who do not want to haul their own trash can opt to hire a private hauler to come to their home," he added.

His report estimated that, by building a transfer station, Vernon could save $42,000 annually. That’s because a hauler’s costs would be trimmed dramatically by picking up the town’s trash at a central location -- the transfer station -- rather than from each of Vernon’s 825 residences.

There would be startup costs, however. Spencer estimates those at $45,000 to $50,000 for a trash compactor and other infrastructure necessary to build a proper transfer station.

O’Donnell was pleasantly surprised by that number.

"That isn’t anywhere near as expensive as I thought it was going to be," she said.

Spencer also examined a collection method dubbed "pay as you throw" -- meaning residents pay based on the amount of trash they generate. The state calls that "variable rate pricing," and the new law makes it mandatory by 2015.

There are multiple ways to implement such a program, Spencer said.

"Usually, residents will be allowed one 30-gallon trash bag at no charge and then have to use special ‘Vernon’ trash bags that are purchased at a certain cost per bag such as $1.50 or $2 for additional trash," he wrote.

"Since recyclables are free, there is a real incentive to reduce the amount of trash," Spencer’s report says. "Some communities give exemptions to senior citizens, too."

He cited Hinsdale, N.H., and Northfield, Mass., as towns where "pay as you throw" has been successful. Trash tonnage at Northfield’s transfer station has decreased by more than 20 percent since 2006, Spencer said.

Vernon’s cash investment in a "pay as you throw" program would be up to the Selectboard. Fees can be set "to make a trash program revenue neutral or even a revenue generator depending on how much the town wants to subsidize trash and recycling," Spencer wrote.

In presenting his findings to the Selectboard on Monday, Spencer said change won’t be easy. But it is feasible, he said.

"Vernon really has quite a few options, and they’re viable," Spencer told the board.

The Selectboard asked Spencer and Michael Courtemanche, a Vernon representative on the Windham Solid Waste board, to develop an informational mailing that would explain the town’s trash options to residents.

The board also expects to hold a forum to discuss the matter before Town Meeting.

There is some cash available to finance any big trash-collection changes such as construction of a transfer station. Officials said the town’s solid-waste management fund last year held about $280,000.

As with a new trash-collection program, any expenditure from that fund will have to be approved by town voters.

There is one other option that voters likely won’t be considering: Spencer said some towns simply stay out of the trash business and tell residents to contract with their own haulers.

But O’Donnell said she doesn’t favor that.

"I don’t really see it being a valid option," she said, noting that it "really would be a disadvantage" for those who cannot afford their own haulers.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.