Friday December 7, 2012

VERNON -- Vernon is one of only three Windham County towns that provide townwide, curbside trash collection.

But that service is not cheap, costing Vernon $135,000 annually.

And it also is about to get a lot more complex, with state-mandated changes coming for all towns, trash haulers and others in the rubbish business.

So Vernon officials are beginning to examine their options, and their decisions could change how trash is collected and how that service is paid for.

"We really don't have a choice. We have to prepare," said Patty O'Donnell, Selectboard chairwoman. "And it takes a while to change peoples' philosophies."

The Selectboard invited the town's contracted hauler, Brattleboro-based Triple T Trucking, to a recent meeting to discuss ways to save money. Vernon residents are not billed separately for trash pickup; the collection cost comes directly from town coffers.

"We're trying to do anything we can to keep our taxes down," O'Donnell said.

She inquired about boosting the town's recycling rate, which stands at about 15 percent based on the amount of material residents leave at bins outside the town garage.

Peter Gaskill, Triple T general manager, said instituting curbside recycling pickup might reasonably be expected to boost Vernon's recycling rate into the 25 percent to 35 percent range. That could save money on the disposal end, since there is a $100-per-ton landfill tipping fee imposed on trash.

But Gaskill acknowledged that the town's costs actually would rise with curbside recycling pickup.

"The drawback is, of course, we have to run another truck to collect it," he said.

O'Donnell also noted the wide variance in the amount of trash each household is generating. To moderate those amounts, Gaskill said a commonly used tool is "pay as you throw," in which a resident's bill is based on the number of bags placed at the curb.

"Across the country, it's a rapidly growing program," Gaskill said. "I haven't really seen it done (much) here in our neck of the woods."

But that's about to change, as is the way recycling is handled throughout Vermont.

The state Legislature earlier this year passed a wide-ranging law that, among other provisions, requires towns to implement "variable rate pricing" for residential customers based on the volume or weight of the trash they produce.

That's just a different way of describing a "pay-as-you-throw" program. It will be mandatory by 2015.

The law also, with staggered deadlines, bans landfill disposal of recyclables, leaf and yard waste and food waste. The deadline for recyclables comes first, and it's causing controversy.

For instance, trash haulers will be required by 2015 to also pick up recycling. But the law is ambiguous about how haulers are supposed to cover that cost: They're not allowed to "charge a separate line item fee" for recycling but "may incorporate the cost of the collection of mandated recyclables into the cost of the collection of solid waste."

State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, is not pleased with that language. He reasons that people and towns want to know what they're paying for, and haulers should be able to give an honest explanation.

"That's the tricky part. When you talk to haulers, they itemize their bills," Hebert said.

"That's the argument that I kept making in the Statehouse, and that's why I want to revisit it," he added, pledging to introduce amendments to the law when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

That's good news for Cheryl Franklin of Vernon-based Franklin & Son Rubbish Removal, who is concerned about haulers' inability to clearly bill for recycling pickup.

"We all know nothing's for free," Franklin said. "How can you just put extra trucks and men on the road at no extra cost?"

She urged state lawmakers to "change some of the language, so that it's possible that the little guy, like us, isn't going to be pushed out of the state."

Ultimately, in many cases, someone will be paying a bigger trash bill when the recycling requirement takes effect. In Vernon's case, that's the town itself.

So Bob Spencer, Windham Solid Waste Management District executive director, pledged to work with Vernon officials to examine the town's options.

One possibility could be to eliminate curbside trash pickup and instead build a transfer station to which residents must transport their garbage. This is common in other towns, and it allows a hauler to cut costs by collecting trash from a central location.

"I'm going to be looking at what it would cost to set up a transfer station," Spencer said.

Spencer, who is a Vernon resident, also will be examining ways the town can implement a pay-as-you-throw system. He points out that, while such a system will be mandatory by 2015, there are multiple ways to structure it.

O'Donnell said these are "huge issues" for the Selectboard to consider. Officials pointed out that additional trash-related expenditures, such as those associated with building a transfer station, would have to soon be inserted into the town's capital plan.

She also acknowledged that any shift away from curbside garbage collection would be unpopular.

"People are going to hang onto their trash pickup," O'Donnell said. "It's a sacred cow in this town."

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