Pittsfield City Council members worry about costs for $1.4M trash tote system proposal

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PITTSFIELD — A proposal to switch to a tote-based trash pickup system sparked a host of questions and concerns on Tuesday from skeptical city councilors.

During the regular meeting of the City Council, some argued the upfront costs don't justify the long-term savings. Many asserted the project must go out to bid, while others worried the plan is too big a change without first educating residents on waste diversion.

"Have we really, really looked at all of the options to reduce the amount of trash that we're creating right now in Pittsfield, increase the recycling without this big upfront cost?" Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said during the meeting. "I feel really uncomfortable in a year ... that we let go of over 70 positions in our School Department, yet what kind of values does that show as a community when we're willing to put up $1.4-and-change million for plastic garbage receptacles?"

After a spirited discussion of the topic, the council decided to put off a vote on the plan until January.

Mayor Linda Tyer and Finance Director Matt Kerwood last month announced their proposal to overhaul the city's solid waste pickup program with the goals of reducing trash and associated disposal costs, increasing the city's low recycling rate, reducing blight and saving money. Residents would receive a 45-gallon tote for trash and a 96-gallon tote for all recycling, which would no longer require separation; they would need to purchase overflow bags for $2-3 for pickup beyond the containers provided.

Upfront costs for the totes and the newly automated service would land around $1.4 million. That aside, Kerwood said the city could save $150,803 with 20 percent waste reduction in the first year, and $212,139 with a 25 percent waste reduction. Any additional savings would be tied to continued reduction in solid waste.

Tyer said she found it offensive to think the city would lay off teachers without taking steps like this one to save money in the longer term.

"We have to start doing something in every single department to find savings," she said. "And that's why we brought this forward."

During Tuesday's meeting, councilors took the opportunity to ask questions on behalf of their constituents and publicly weigh in on the plan, which they say has their phones steadily ringing.

Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell said he's continuously hearing from elderly residents concerned about maneuvering the totes on hills and tricky terrain.

"We need to address ... that section of the population. The elderly, the physically challenged," he said. "We need to do a lot of homework in regards to that."

Officials said they would make accommodations for those who need it. Some 120 residents already receive doorside service, said Dan Higgins, general manager for Republic Services, and that won't change.

At large Councilor Kathy Amuso asked Tyer's administration what kind of individual exceptions they'd be willing to make with the proposed 45-gallon and 96-gallon totes for trash and recycling, respectively.

Finance Director Matt Kerwood said they would make "case by case" determinations, but he was leery of opening "pandora's box."

"That logistically becomes very difficult to manage," he said.

Public Services Commissioner David Turocy said his department makes these determinations based on doctors' notes.

Krol asked what other programs Massachusetts municipalities use to reduce rubbish, increase recycling and save money. Higgins said a bag-based "pay-as-you-throw" program is the optimal way to achieve those goals.

Krol said the $1.4 million it would cost for the totes doesn't seem worth it given recent cuts to the School Department, the fact marginal savings would be years away and there appear to be other programs out there to achieve the same goals without the upfront costs.

"It takes way too long," Krol said of the time it would take to break even on the program. "I think ultimately that's the sticking point. We can do better."

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi joined Connell and Krol in questioning whether costs associated the program are a current priority. There was widespread agreement among councilors that the project go out to bid to ensure the city gets the best deal possible.

Some residents and the Board of Health support the tote system because they say it would address garbage-strewn street corners and associated concerns, both sanitary and aesthetic. Health Director Gina Armstrong also said last week Republic Services agreed to help monitor "problem properties" that drain her department's resources.

And Kerwood said a Pittsfield-based Department of Environmental Protection staffer would put in 80 hours to help with implementation of a new program.

Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers said she was concerned that a lack of buy-in from constituents and the associated costs complicate the matter.

"I philosophically agree with toters. This is an incredibly difficult conversation," she said. "We're in this pigeonhole because of where we are fiscally."

Tuesday offered the last opportunity for outgoing Councilors Amuso and Lisa Tully to weigh in on the program from their current vantage point; Earl Persip and Helen Moon will fill their seats in the new year.

Reach Amanda Drane at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.


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