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Aldermen debate fee for trash

Report recommends two ways to charge

By Deirdre Fernandes
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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Is Newton ready for a trash fee? That’s the question facing the city’s aldermen and residents on the heels of a report released last week on a proposed pay-as-you-throw disposal program.

“It is entirely possible to do this,’’ said Alderwoman Sydra Schnipper, who was a member of the study group that considered pay-as-you-throw options.

But trickier political questions, Schnipper said, are whether the city should charge residents for a service traditionally covered by property taxes, and what to do with the $6.8 million that Newton currently devotes to trash and recycling costs.

“What else are we going to ask the citizens to pay for in the next couple of years?’’ Alderwoman Susan Albright asked after the report was presented Tuesday to the Board of Aldermen’s Public Facilities Committee.

The report recommends two options, both of which preserve Newton’s recently implemented automated system for collecting trash and recyclables.

Under the first option, households using a standard wheeled bin would be charged an annual collection fee of $260. Residents opting for a smaller trash bin would pay $185 a year. If a household had trash that didn’t fit into its bin, the overflow would be collected in bags costing $2.25.

The second proposal calls for a $150 base fee and a charge for cityissued trash bags. Residents would use the official, 30-gallon orange bags for their garbage, which would be placed in the trash bins for pick-up. Each bag would cost $2.25. If a household uses one bag a week, the report calculates, its annual trash-collection cost would be $267.

Both options would encourage residents to reduce how much trash they discard, and would be more equitable than the current system, according to the report.

But some aldermen bristled at the idea.

Alderman Lenny Gentile warned his colleagues that they “will tick off so many people’’ with a fee.

A handful of board members had requested the study on pay-as-you-throw last summer during the budget process.

The study group, on which Schnipper was joined by city public works officials, a businessman, and a state official, looked at various options over the course of eight meetings this fall.

Pay-as-you-throw has become an increasingly popular program in Massachusetts, not just for its environmental benefits, but as a way to ease budgetary pressures.

As of July, 134 Massachusetts communities had pay-as-you-throw programs, including Concord, Natick, Sudbury, and Wayland, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Boston is reviewing several options, including pay-as-you-throw and charging for bulk waste pickup.

Municipalities pay for trash disposal based on the tonnage taken to a landfill or incinerator, and pay-as-you-throw encourages residents to either recycle or donate items instead of filling their trash bins, said Brooke Nash, the DEP’s branch chief for municipal recycling.

A community’s disposal fees can decline between 35 and 50 percent because of the reduction in trash, she said.

But introducing pay-as-you-throw can also touch off a fierce debate, Nash said.

“Residents are resistant to change,’’ she said. “We’re used to thinking of trash collection as a public service.’’

Over the years, about five communities have started pay-as-you-throw programs and then reversed the decision, Nash said.

She couldn’t recall any town that implemented a fee and then refunded residents the same amount on their taxes.

“While residents may not see a reduction in their property tax bill, the money is going to fill other needs,’’ Nash said.

In Newton, the trash conversation has become intertwined with the city’s $240 million list of unfunded capital projects.

Mayor Setti Warren recently presented to the Board of Alderman a prioritized plan to fix up schools, fire stations, and City Hall over the next four years.

Warren said he will propose a way to fund the capital program next September. In the meantime, community groups are meeting to discuss potential funding alternatives and the city’s budget.

Pay-as-you-throw will be part of the discussion, and he wants to hear residents’ opinions about the trash program, Warren said.

But the mayor said he isn’t ready to propose that the aldermen consider pay-as-you-throw.

Pay-as-you-throw would likely free up money in the city’s budget for other projects, but it’s unlikely to provide much environmental benefit by reducing trash, Schnipper said.

Newton’s move two years ago to an automated system, under which households have one bin for trash and one for recycling, instead of just allowing residents to throw out as many bags as they wanted, already reduced the trash collection, Schnipper said.

Newton handles 20,437 tons of trash and 23,519 tons of recyclables each year, according to recent numbers.

“The majority of the environmental benefits have already been received,’’ Schnipper said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@

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