PITTSFIELD — Is the city ready to overhaul its trash pickup program?
Many agree that change is in order for the unlimited pickup service that often leads to garbage-strewn street corners, but how to implement a new solid waste program remains a stickier issue.
On Tuesday, the City Council weighed a new ordinance proposed by Mayor Linda Tyer that would place the city's trash pickup under a streamlined tote system in spring 2018.
If the ordinance is approved, the city would provide residents with two totes for solid waste pickup: one 45-gallon container for trash and a 96-gallon container for recycling, with alternative sizes available to seniors and disabled residents upon request.
City agents wouldn't pick up any items outside the totes or approved 15- and 33-gallon industrial-grade overflow bags available for purchase for $2 and $3, respectively. Personnel would pick up trash weekly and recycling, which no longer would require separation, every two weeks.
In a letter to councilors, Tyer said the proposal would "modernize our current collection system by implementing greater efficiencies, enhancing environmental stewardship, combating blight, and reducing the costs of our solid waste disposal."
"The modernization of our solid waste and recycling collection program is long overdue and our proposal mirrors other programs that have been highly successful throughout Massachusetts," Tyer wrote.
Finance Director Matt 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, Kerwood said.
Councilors and members of the community expressed skepticism around whether the savings justified the upfront capital expense, which would land at around $1.3 million.
Tyer and Kerwood responded by saying it would reduce waste — and therefore cost — in the long run, and at the same time improve the city's 11 percent recycling rate and provide a uniform look to the city on trash pickup day.
Councilors also said their constituents are concerned about the size of the mandatory totes. They said some residents worry that they're too large for them to maneuver, while others feel that they're too small to contain their weekly trash load.
Tyer told councilors they would work with these residents and cautioned them not to get too bogged down before residents have a chance to experience the totes.
"Hand-wringing around these issues will not solve our problems," Tyer said, referencing the 145 other communities in the commonwealth that use automated trash services. "I'm confident that Pittsfielders do care about efficiency and cost containment."
The proposal also includes a new fine structure for those who create blighted conditions and those who expose their trash to the elements — escalating fines to as high as $200 a day while the code violations endure.
The city's Board of Health would be charged with enforcing the rules.
Councilors asked members of Tyer's administration about how that enforcement would work without additional resources. The uniform system would reduce the number of blight and nuisance complaints, officials said, reducing the strain on the Health Department and enabling city employees to get to incoming calls. Tyer also said she's hopeful the city will get grant money for an enforcement coordinator, but the first application was not successful. She said other communities have gotten their grants for enforcement after several months into a new solid waste program with a demonstrated need.
As it stands, Kerwood said, taxpayers should be concerned about paying for unlimited trash pickup. He said city agents are currently lugging around excess furniture and large amounts of trash, about 900,000 gallons per week, and that is costly and labor-intensive. He said the average household, which currently produces 50.8 gallons of trash per week, need only eliminate 5 gallons of trash per week in order to fit within the 45-gallon tote. And if they can't, officials said, there are the overflow bags available, and residents also have the option of paying $150 for an additional 45-gallon tote.
If broken, the city would provide replacement totes at no expense.
An advisory committee recommended 35-gallon trash totes, but Tyer and Kerwood said they decided to propose 45-gallon bins in light of concerns from councilors. The larger size disqualifies the city from a $190,000 grant that would subsidize the upfront cost.
Residents who spoke during the public comment period were concerned with those upfront costs, some wondering if the city should consider the 64-gallon totes adopted in other cities and whether the program would lead to illegal dumping.
Kate Lauzon said she is for the program because it would increase the city's recycling rate and promote cleanliness in her neighborhood.
"The cleaner the city looks, the better people will feel about living here and staying here," she said. "All of us have a part to play."
Some residents also expressed concern about the ability of disabled people to maneuver the totes.
"I worked with these toters as a custodian," said Jim Gleason, who is disabled. "They're very hard to handle."
Officials said they would display the bins in City Hall for those wishing to test them. Upon request from Ward 6 Councilor John Krol, Tyer also said they'd be willing to make house calls to homes with elderly or disabled residents so they can experience them in person.
Additionally, officials said they would set up workable parameters for such residents, such as smaller bins or doorstep pickup where necessary.
Ward 1 Councilor Lisa Tully asked Kerwood how long it would take to see savings, given the upfront costs, but Kerwood said he'd go over that during the City Council meeting Tuesday.
"I like the concept," Tully said. "I just want to make sure it works."
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell said the city should send the contract out to bid to see if more competitive rates are available and if it's possible to see more savings to offset the upfront costs.
"Some of these other local haulers, I think, may be very interested," he said.
Councilor At-Large Pete White asked if Covanta, which recently received money from the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund in order to keep the operation in Pittsfield, is relying on the city to bring a certain amount of waste.
"They're not dependent on us," Public Services Commissioner David Turocy said, and the waste reduction "won't really affect their financial stability."
As for snow, parked cars and trees getting in the way, officials said the automated trucks currently operate across the state and are able to work around such obstacles.
White also asked about the prospects for compost pickup.
"That does intrigue me, but I think we need to do one thing first," Tyer said.
Council President Pete Marchetti asked Tyer for more information in advance of Tuesday's City Council meeting, and councilors asserted they're in a tough spot with making a decision on the ordinance before the public truly understands the prospective changes.
To which Tyer responded: "It's going to take leadership, for sure."
Reach Amanda Drane at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.