VERNON -- One way or another, Vernon residents will be reaching into their own pockets to pay for trash collection starting next year.
Facing a new state law as well as budget pressures from the pending Vermont Yankee closure, officials say the days of town-funded, curbside trash pickup are numbered.
There appear to be two remaining options: Get out of the trash business entirely and tell residents to find their own haulers, or else implement a townwide "pay-as-you-throw" program that requires residents to purchase bags or stickers for garbage collection.
Officials are leaning toward the pay-as-you-throw system and this week began exploring possible costs and logistics. But the final say will be left to voters.
"This really isn't our decision," said Patty O'Donnell, Selectboard chairwoman. "We will bring this to the townspeople at Town Meeting. They will make a decision."
Officials already had been debating the future of Vernon's trash pickup when Entergy announced in August that the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant would shut by the end of next year.
With Yankee paying nearly half the town's taxes, Selectboard members now are planning for a much smaller fiscal 2015 budget. That spending plan will be approved at Town Meeting in March and will take effect July 1, 2014.
Whatever the shape of that budget, Selectboard members don't expect it to include the $135,000 the town now pays annually for weekly trash pickup by Brattleboro-based Triple T Trucking.
The current system "is not going to work, because we're not going to have the money," O'Donnell said.
Last year, Selectboard members had discussed the possibility of saving some cash by building a transfer station where residents would be required to drop off their trash.
But in light of the Yankee announcement, officials have ruled that out, citing costs associated with implementing and staffing a transfer station.
Beyond fiscal constraints, there is another factor behind Vernon's trash talks: A state law passed in 2012 -- Act 148 -- mandates incremental changes to boost recycling rates.
One of those changes is mandatory curbside recycling pickup in areas where there is curbside trash collection. That takes effect in 2015.
Vernon currently has no curbside recycling pickup. And, in light of budgetary issues, the town won't be picking up an extra bill for such a service.
Vernon officials could take themselves out of the equation and tell residents to strike their own trash- and recycling-collection deals with a hauler of their choosing. But officials worry that such a move would lead to drastically higher costs for townspeople, some of whom may seek alternate -- and possibly illegal -- means of disposing of their garbage.
"I think that would be very difficult," O'Donnell said.
That leaves "pay as you throw," wherein residents' bills are determined by the amount of waste they generate.
Such a system is mandated under the new state law by 2015 anyway, so by implementing it in 2014, "you'll be one year ahead," said Bob Spencer, Windham Solid Waste Management District executive director.
Spencer, who also lives in Vernon, told Selectboard members that there is another benefit: Pay-as-you-throw rates could be set so that residents fund curbside collection of trash and recyclables as well as any administrative expenses incurred by the town.
"The goal is to have a pay-as-you-throw system that covers the town's solid-waste costs," Spencer said.
He told the board that, in his opinion, "I think it's a very fair way to pay for trash. You pay for what you generate."
Other nearby towns, including Northfield, Mass., and Hinsdale, N.H., have implemented pay as you throw, Spencer said. In some systems, residents purchase special town-approved garbage bags; in others, a town sells stickers to be affixed to trash bags.
"There are a number of ways to go about it," Spencer said.
He and Triple T administrators agreed to work on a cost analysis showing how much Vernon might charge for bags or stickers in order to make a pay-as-you-throw program pay for itself.
Selectboard members likely will use that analysis to build pay as you throw into the fiscal 2015 budget.
"We're at a crossroads right now, and we have to do something," O'Donnell said.
That also is true for many Vermont towns and trash haulers facing implementation of Act 148.
Norman Mallory, who owns Triple T, attended Monday's meeting in Vernon and said recycling-pickup mandates are putting the squeeze on haulers.
"It's becoming quite difficult to operate," Mallory said.
He believes Triple T, which handles Brattleboro's recycling and compost pickups, is "way ahead of most everybody in the state."
"But I'm still concerned about it," Mallory said.
State Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon-based Republican, has been involved in Act 148 discussions and said he is "anxiously awaiting" a Vermont Agency of Natural Resources report due this month.
"They're supposed to have recommendations about ways for towns to address the law," Hebert said. "One of the things we're concerned about is the impact on small, local haulers."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.