David Pill: Pittsfield's perfect trash storm

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PITTSFIELD — I do not understand Pittsfield politics, I must admit. It seems that every issue is a "third rail," fatal to all who touch it. Maybe it's because the issues that kill a political career are moving targets, maybe it's because the politicians themselves have left their spines at home.

At the City Council meeting late last month, trash was once again on the agenda. No one wants to deal with the issue and it keeps bouncing to subcommittee and commission, with everyone hoping it will simply disappear as an issue until another election passes. The problem is that any plan to limit trash, or change how people manage their garbage, is fraught with complaints. The other problem is that when crafting a plan, and you saw the incumbent provider sitting at the table, then the city signing a new contract without bidding it (because it could, even though maybe it shouldn't) it's no surprise that there is all sorts of talk about self-dealing and other nefarious suggestions.

What you don't see is perspective. After you remove apartment and condo complexes, buildings with four or more units, commercial buildings, and institutions, I'd guess that the city provides pick-up to 5,000 residences a week. On average, most households have less than four people — in my neighborhood one or two is common. So most folks will never reach any of the suggested limits on weekly trash — yet they howl at the prospect of being limited.

The councilors respond by wanting to design a system based on a few very specific complaints, and the trash line item continues to be an outsized portion of a city budget we all would like to see lower (along with our taxes).

Communities across the nation use toters, but in Pittsfield it seems that our population is so different — no other city has hills, snow, narrow streets or an older population) — that it cannot work here. Yet for many four- or five-family buildings, it works just fine.

The problem with the mayor's plan was simple. The vendor wanted us to buy the toters up front and own them forever. In a few other cities I called, the vendor charges the toters to the community a little each month and maintains them. You may get a used toter, but you get a working one. It becomes part of the monthly fee, not a million bucks up front.

RECIPE FOR INACTION

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So, we have an immovable mayor who came up with a plan that needed tweaking but she didn't want to budge — until it was clear she lost. Then you have councilors who complain about runaway expenses, and when given the opportunity to actually do something that if implemented and enforced will cut costs, have punted at every opportunity. And then you have a community that clamors for lower taxes and for some reason thinks the tax cut fairy comes and removes expenses that may not impact them. Talk about a perfect storm for inaction.

We cannot accommodate 43,000 different scenarios, so you really do get a one sized plan. The trick is to design a plan that meets more needs than not and tell the others they need to change their habits or pay more.

The next most effective way is to contact other cities with different vendors and ask them a few questions like how much per stop do they pay, what is collected, how is bulky waste collected, how many complaints per 1,000 collections do they get per week and how well are they resolved at the vendor level. You will find that there are other vendors, they would love to bid a contract like Pittsfield's, they could scale up, since the incumbent would have staff to lay off if they lost the contract, and realizing that this is not rocket science, we have a lot in common with other communities even 175 miles away. The vendors in other communities in Eastern Mass. are used to this type of work. Iif a broad net was cast, I am certain there would have been bids. No need to re-design the wheel, it will only work if it is round and others have proven the concept for us.

Then you design an RFP with base services that may include more than you do currently. Some communities collect yard waste and larger items (up to a limit) and do not use toters, but they require trash cans. Others use toters but once a month allow for the larger items, and others do community composting on a city-owned parcel and can sell the product they make in exchange for using the land and taking away the yard waste. But in Pittsfield, we signed a contract with the incumbent (Republic Services) who helped design a plan that was designed to fail, and we are resigned to several more years of high cost and inaction.

As I listen to the budget hearings on PCTV, I keep reminding myself that most of those talking just like the sound of their own voices. Figuring this out should not have taken the hundreds of hours spent on the subject. But talking is easy, acting is hard, and change is harder still.

If you drive through the city you can easily tell that a relatively small percentage of the population actually free feeds on trash, but convincing the rest of the residents it will save them money to change the current bad system takes guts — something in short supply at City Hall.

David Pill is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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