BRATTLEBORO -- The recycling business is sluggish, and that likely will cost area taxpayers more money next fiscal year.
Windham Solid Waste Management District, which represents 19 area towns, is proposing a 9.1 percent increase in the assessments those towns pay annually to the district.
Executive Director Bob Spencer points to two big culprits -- fewer recyclables arriving at the district's Brattleboro facility and, once those recyclables are processed, a depressed market for selling that material.
But Spencer also believes the district's board, consisting of representatives from each town, is working hard to manage those financial pressures.
"I think the board's been doing a good job of trying to control costs here," Spencer said. "I think the budget will withstand detailed scrutiny."
He added that, by accepting and processing recyclables, the district is benefiting each member town financially by cutting down on the amount of trash that must be disposed of.
"Every ton that we don't send to a landfill saves these towns money," Spencer said. "That's our charter."
At the district's Old Ferry Road headquarters, workers sort through mountains of recyclables. Fiscal 2012 was a banner year for such activity, as the district reaped $760,231 from the sale of recycled materials.
The district shared the wealth: In budget planning for the following fiscal year, the board decreased assessments -- the amount, based on population, that each member town pays to subsidize district operations -- by about 5.6 percent.
But the market for recyclables has dipped significantly since then. Fiscal 2013 revenues from the sale of recycled materials were just $484,813, a 36-percent drop from the year before.
"That was the big hit, right there," Spencer said.
Officials say market prices for recycled metals, plastics and paper all have dipped. But the largest drop is in the paper market, where the bad news has continued: On Friday, Spencer said he received word that cardboard prices just dropped another $5 per ton.
"The prices are down from the historic highs of 2012," Spencer said. "We have no control over (the market). But I am working to find other markets."
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that there are smaller loads of recyclables arriving at Windham Solid Waste.
"Our tonnages are down, and that's indicative of the overall economy -- people are buying less," Spencer said. "And it's indicative of the fact that we have lost some recyclables due to single-stream recycling programs."
By that, he means the manner in which recyclables are collected. Windham Solid Waste maintains a dual-stream process, separating paper from other materials.
Spencer has said such separation makes for a "cleaner" product that can be more marketable.
But the industry trend is toward a single-stream model, in which all materials are mingled. And if a community chooses single-stream collection, its recyclables no longer can go to Windham Solid Waste's facility.
The combined forces of decreasing tonnage and reduced prices mean the district's budget planners have no optimism for a quick recovery.
For the current fiscal year, the district budgeted revenues of $550,000 from selling recyclables. In the newly drafted fiscal 2015 budget, that number rises by just $10,000.
"It's kind of status quo," Spencer said.
The district's stagnant revenues put more pressure on member towns. For the current fiscal year, the district increased town assessments by 5 percent; for fiscal 2015, proposed assessments are up 9.1 percent.
The impact on each town varies based on its population. By far, the biggest contributor is Brattleboro, where the district's assessment is due to rise from $144,548 to $157,641 for fiscal 2015.
Westminster is the second-biggest member town. Its assessment is slated to increase from $38,135 to $41,589.
A public hearing on the district's budget is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Windham Solid Waste offices, 327 Old Ferry Road. The district board is expected to approve the budget soon after that hearing.
In a letter to member towns, Spencer says the board "worked hard to minimize the increase in assessments."
For example, the board alleviated some financial pressure by taking $50,000 from the district's landfill post-closure fund and applying it toward the fiscal 2015 budget.
Windham Solid Waste maintains a landfill that was capped in 1995. Spencer said there are annual costs associated with the landfill, including maintaining the cap, testing wells and monitoring methane gas.
"Our post-closure costs have not been as much as anticipated," Spencer said, making it feasible to dip into the closure fund for budgetary needs.
There have been cost-cutting moves, as well.
"The district did eliminate a full-time staff position this year," Spencer said. "It's the first (layoff) in I don't know how long, because we were anticipating what the (revenues) were going to be."
Officials are not resigned to a long-term financial crunch: It's expected that Act 148, a "universal recycling" law approved by the state Legislature in 2012, will boost recycling rates significantly.
But Spencer notes that the law takes effect incrementally and is not expected to have any significant impact on the district's fiscal 2015 revenues.
Also, he points out that, no matter how much recyclable material arrives at Windham Solid Waste, much depends on the market for that material.
"If we get more tonnage and the markets are in the tank, then that's not going to be good," Spencer said.
Town by town
Citing market pressures and decreased amounts of recyclables, Windham Solid Waste Management District is proposing a 9.1-percent increase in the fiscal year 2015 assessments for all 19 member towns. Assessnents are based on a town's population. A look at the impact of that increase, with the district's proposed fiscal 2015 assessment followed by the current assessment in parentheses: Brattleboro: $157,641 ($144,548)
Brookline: $6,936 ($6,360)
Dover: $14,709 ($13,488)
Dummerston: $24,393 ($22,367)
Guilford: $27,757 ($25,451)
Hailfax: $9,527 ($8,736)
Jamaica: $13,545 ($12,420)
Marlboro: $14,107 ($12,936)
Newfane: $ 22,587 ($20,711)
Putney: $35,360 ($32,423)
Readsboro: $9,985 ($9,156)
Stratton: $2,827 ($2,592)
Townshend: $16,123 ($14,784)
Vernon: $28,869 ($26,471)
Wardsboro: $11,778 ($10,800)
Westminster: $41,589 ($38,135)
Whitingham: $17,758 ($16,284)
Wilmington: $24,550 ($22,511)
Winhall: $10,064 ($9,228)
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.