Town can't suspend pay-as-you-throw

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BRATTLEBORO — Some residents have asked the town to suspend its pay-as-you-throw waste disposal program so no one would need to go out and buy bags during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Josh Kelly, materials management section chief at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, told the Reformer that state law law requires municipalities to charge for trash based on volume or weight. He said this type of system diverts waste from the landfill via recycling and composting but also reduces waste.

During a special board meeting Tuesday held by via GoToMeeting videoconferencing, Select Board member Brandie Starr said she is disappointed that the program could not be suspended.

"I feel like this is a time where we need to be able to be responsible and pull as much burden off humans in our community as possible," she said.

In an email to town officials, Kelly said the board has control over town ordinances as long as they do not conflict with state law.

"If the town wished to provide some minimal amount of discounted trash bags to residents in need, they could do that as the trash would still be priced by volume in keeping with state law," he wrote.

Town Manager Peter Elwell told the Reformer town staff could explore changing prices if the Select Board wanted, but the point of suspending the program was to make it easier for residents to dispose of garbage and remove the need for them to go out to the store and buy the bags.

"Changing the price of the bags but leaving the program otherwise intact would not address the concern that had been raised to us by the community," he said, noting that the board considered repricing multiple times in recent years but has not done so. "The community concerns we hear about the PAYT program are not so much about the specific pricing but about the requirement to purchase and use the yellow and purple bags."

Brattleboro began its pay-as-you-throw system in June 2015 to comply with Act 148, which required that the cost for all residential trash in Vermont be paid for by the generator via a unit-based pricing system based on weight or volume. Individually, 15-gallon bags cost $2 and and 32-gallon bags cost $3. Rolls of 5 bags cost $10 for the smaller ones and $15 for the bigger ones.

Residents who have their trash picked up by the town's hauler must use specific bags. Residents in multi-unit buildings with five or more units do not, as their landlord is responsible for providing them with trash removal. Recycling and compost is collected at no charge, as the service is covered by property taxes.

With the closure of municipal facilities, the individual bags will not be sold at the treasurer's office or the Gibson-Aiken Center until further notice. Bags can still be purchased at stores selling them that are exempt from Gov. Phil Scott's order to shut down non-essential business.

Kelly told the Reformer much of Brattleboro's success in having high recycling and composting rates can be attributed to the town's pay-as-you-throw system, and having "convenient curbside collection services for recycling and compostables."

ANR says studies show that such systems reduce residential waste by as much as 17 percent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says those systems have "proven to be the single most measurably effective way to reduce residential solid waste, increase recycling, and decreasing waste-related greenhouse gas emissions."

Other COVID-19-related matters

Elwell said the town started making adjustments to its operations prior to the governor's stay-home order on March 16. Out of about 140 town employees, he estimated fewer than 10 are at home and not able to do any of their work.

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Elwell noted that emergency services are still being provided at all hours of the day. Some medical calls require following specific COVID-19 cautions. Shift supervisors are making decisions about whether to send police officers on calls.

Water and sewer operations also require special precautions. Elwell said employees are making sure they are keeping themselves and the facilities safe.

Administrative operations can be "awkward and disconcerting" not being able to communicate face to face, he said. Staff in these departments are using email and their regular office phone numbers.

Adjustments have been made to the ways in which outdoor work is being done by crews from public works and the recreation and park department. Elwell said when possible, projects are handled by a single person; other times, when necessary for safety reasons, employees are teaming up but keeping an appropriate distance between them.

Use of basketball courts, playgrounds and park benches in town is not permitted at this time. Elwell said the equipment cannot be kept properly sanitized. He encouraged the public to use green spaces.

Recreational programming has been cancelled. Elwell said the department is still communicating with program participants and staff have set up a virtual Easter egg hunt.

Brooks Memorial Library is still able to provide services and access to resources. Elwell said staff offered a lot of online programming prior to the pandemic.

Annual spring leaf pickup is scheduled for April 17 and May 1. Street cleaning will continue.

Burn permits are still required to have fires outside.

Elwell said he anticipates having more information at Tuesday's board meeting about holding annual Representative Town Meeting. The March 21 meeting was cancelled out of concern for the coronavirus pandemic.

At the start of Tuesday's meeting, Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel said he thinks people would start to get used to the virtual meetings in the next few weeks.

"Welcome to this strange and difficult time we are all in," he said.

He later described the meeting "working remarkably well in my opinion." He counted about 40 people in the conference.

Wessel said COVID-19 is in the community and he hopes to receive "more concrete numbers" regarding local cases soon.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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