BRATTLEBORO—At a Guilford Selectboard meeting on Nov. 14, one town official had some words to say about the Windham Solid Waste Management District.
The district is “running in the red so much they can’t even give the towns a budget to vote on,” said Vice Chair Troy Revis, who also serves as the town’s alternate representative to the WSWMD board of supervisors.
Revis suggested that the town “[get] together with the Franklins and the Goodenoughs” and use those private waste haulers for its trash, compost, and recycling needs after “[pulling] out of” the nonprofit municipal waste-management entity.
Revis’s colleagues agreed, and the board is working on forming a committee to explore leaving the WSWMD.
But when The Commons asked Waste Management District Executive Director Bob Spencer to confirm that the district had no budget to present at the Nov. 10 meeting, Spencer replied in an email, “I have no idea what [Revis is] talking about.”
In fact, the Waste Management District’s Board of Supervisors did present a budget — for $1,506,451 for Fiscal Year 2018 — to its members at the Nov. 10 budget meeting.
Revis did not physically attend that meeting, though he did phone in via conference call for part of it. In a follow-up conversation with The Commons, he acknowledged some confusion on the issue.
And Revis’s misstatement about the lack of a budget may have stemmed from uncertainty among other members of the Selectboard regarding Waste Management District-related issues. None of his colleagues corrected his statement at the time.
The town’s representative to the WSWMD board, Cheryl Franklin, was likewise unable to attend the budget meeting. The Selectboard sent Board Chair Sheila Morse to represent the town, though she isn’t a voting member.
Potentially further clouding the issue was the a proposed amendment to the agreement that determines how the towns are assessed for the removal of municipal waste.
Currently, 20 towns pay the district an annual assessment in proportion to each town’s population. Because some towns’ officials questioned the fairness of this model, the board of supervisors this past year explored different assessment models.
Those models have included continuing with the population model, using the grand list (an aggregate valuation of taxable property within a given town), or developing a formula that combines the two measures.
At the Nov. 10 meeting, Lou Bruso, chair of the Waste Management District’s Board of Supervisors, proposed an amendment to the assessment model: charging towns with a transfer station — Townshend, Halifax, Westminster, and Wilmington — a 20-percent surcharge.
As a reason for that suggestion, Spencer explained in a Nov. 22 memo to Townshend’s Selectboard that “it takes much more time for [Waste Management District] trucks to go to the transfer-station towns than to the 24-7 drop-off sites in the towns closer to Brattleboro.”
Although Guilford has no transfer station and won’t pay the surcharge, the Selectboard cried foul at the 11th-hour change.
Morse told The Commons she felt “blindsided” by Bruso’s proposed amendment to the assessment model.
In an official letter she sent on behalf of the Selectboard, she told Spencer and Bruso, “[the] fact that the Board of Supervisors presented yet another option on [Nov. 10] that Selectboards had no opportunity to consider was unfortunate.”
That proposal might also have been a source of confusion.
The Board of Supervisors was voting on which budget and assessment model representatives should bring back to their respective Selectboards for final approval.
Revis, who voted on the budget via conference call, said of the meeting, “I thought that was the final vote.”
Multiple funding scenarios
As a part of budget preparations that began in January, Spencer said, an Alternative Funding Committee was formed and met for six months to compose two budgets: “existing operations,” which maintains the WSWMD’s operations, and a second scenario, which proposes closing the district’s Materials Recovery Facility.
At the meeting, in a 16–8 vote, the Board of Supervisors decided to use the “existing operations” budget and the amended assessment model with the 20-percent surcharge for the four towns.
Selectboard representatives were charged with returning to their respective boards with that scenario.
In a follow-up conversation with The Commons, Morse explained “I’m very much on a learning curve,” and said that her statements at the Nov. 14 Selectboard meeting “represent my best understanding.” She acknowledged being “confused” at the Nov. 10 budget meeting.
But at the Nov. 14 Selectboard meeting, Morse was clear that Guilford wasn’t getting enough services in exchange for what it pays the District, and the other Board members agreed.
Morse told Selectboard members that, in return for their assessment, the town gets “outreach and education to schools and businesses, we have [recyclables, compost, and trash] collection locations available in the town or the district, and we have four hazardous waste [collection] days per year.”
In explaining his “exit” statement, Revis agreed with Morse’s sentiments.
“I think what I was trying to say is, we can do better. That budget goes up and down [every year]. It’s like a yo-yo,” Revis said.
A review of records by The Commons indicated that in the past five years the budget has hovered around $1.4 million, fluctuating by about $100,000 — a difference of about 7 percent — from year to year.
Depending on which assessment the Board of Supervisors ultimately chooses, Guilford’s fees could range from $16,671.64 for the grand list model to $30,604.67 for the population model.
With approximately 811 Guilford households, as of the 2010 census, this means each household could pay between $20.55 and $37.73 per year toward the Waste Management District’s operations, not including what they pay for their household permits or to their private haulers.
“We’re trying to act responsibly for our residents,” she said.
In the conversation with The Commons, Morse expressed the Selectboard’s concern with the district’s lack of a capital improvements plan to maintain or purchase new trucks and equipment.
She also said, “We want to reduce our taxes.”
A cost shift from towns to private haulers
But according to Spencer and backed by research from Brattleboro Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, while a town’s taxes might go down if the district closes the Materials Recovery Facility, if the district ceases operations completely, or if a town leaves the district, residents won’t see a net decrease in household expenditures.
Towns still have to pay someone to get rid of their trash, recyclables, and, beginning in 2020, all compostable waste, per the state’s new universal recycling law.
Those collection fees won’t be in the form of taxes — the money won’t go through the town — but money will have to go somewhere: in this case, to a private hauler with a profit motive.
“By closing the [Recovery Facility], there will be a cost-shift to residents when the 24/7 recycling boxes are gone,” said Spencer, noting 146 Guilford households currently have Waste Management District stickers allowing them to bring their trash, recyclables, and compost to the Old Ferry Road facility.
Those residents, and others who use the roll-off bins at other locations, “will lose the convenience from not having a [roll-off container] in their town or nearby.”
The towns must contract with a private hauler to maintain the roll-off bins, Spencer said, “and guess what? Those prices will go up.”
Moreland’s research — on one aspect of those costs, at least — bears this out.
In an Oct. 21 memo to the Brattleboro Selectboard titled “Recycling Options,” he noted that this year’s market price for Guilford-based Triple-T Trucking to pick up recyclables and bring them to the Recovery Facility has ranged from $15-$17 per ton.
If the District’s facility were to close, Triple-T would have to haul the recyclables up to Casella Waste Systems’ recovery facility in Rutland.
“[The] town would pay $35 per ton for trucking to [Triple-T], plus the market price paid by [Triple-T] to Casella for the recycling. This market price will fluctuate due to forces outside of our control,” Moreland wrote.
Operating the MRF
The Materials Recovery Facility mentioned in the budget is where recyclables go to get sorted. They come from private haulers who collect refuse from county residents and businesses, and from residents who don’t have municipal or private curbside pickup and bring their recyclables to the facility or any one of the 100-plus roll-off bins placed around the county.
After the materials are sorted and bundled, other companies come and buy the recyclables from the district and pay them according to commodity market prices.
Spencer and Waste Management District Clerk Kristen Benoit warned that if the member towns vote to close the recovery facility, close the entire district, or leave the district individually — options many town officials have discussed — that is where the member towns’ agency will end. A private company is under no obligation to hear their concerns.
“Hauling [recyclables] is huge for us, as it is for all trash companies,” Spencer said. “We have two full-time truck drivers and two part-timers to haul the recyclables.”
Benoit also pointed out the district has brought in considerable revenue in previous years, but that was when the recyclables commodity market was favorable to such facilities.
That market has seen a precipitous drop in the past few years, and the district can’t rely on recyclables to fund its operations.
Guilford takes a stand
Guilford Selectboard members appeared unified in their desire to explore leaving the district.
In a Nov. 29 letter to the district, Morse wrote that the board was “opposed to continuing the [Materials Recovery Facility]” and “in favor of the 50% population/50% grand list based fee.”
But Morse told The Commons that “the town is not yet taking a position,” adding, “we can’t make the decision for the town.”
Morse and Revis also said they hadn’t researched what private haulers would charge if the district closed the Materials Recovery Facility.
When asked why neither he, Franklin, nor the Selectboard researched private haulers’ costs before casting an official vote on closing the Recovery Facility, Revis said, “that I cannot answer.”
Morse said board members figured they would have time to collect those figures by the beginning of the next fiscal year. By then, however, should a “No MRF” vote prevail, the Materials Recovery Facility would already be shut down.
For Guilford to leave the district, residents would have to endorse the move through a vote at Town Meeting.
‘We’re not meant to be level-funded’
Morse told The Commons the Selectboard’s concern is “about the fiscal health of the [Waste Management District],” because it runs at a deficit and doesn’t generate enough revenue on its own to fund its operations.
According to Spencer, though, the district is a municipal entity, similar to a town, with a charter issued by the state legislature in 1988. At that time, eight towns jointly managed a 30-acre landfill. Since 1995, “federally mandated landfill operation regulations forced WSWMD to seek alternative landfill sites or an alternative to landfill disposal,” according to the district’s website.
Spencer said that there was no expectation of profit in its design.
This was echoed by Benoit, who said of the district, “We’re not meant to be level-funded.”
Like a town, state, or the federal government, “this district doesn’t ever run in the black. It isn’t meant to. It always runs in the red. That’s why we charge a tax: the assessment,” Spencer said. “Not since the landfill was open did this place ever make money. We’ve never been expected to.”
Still, Spencer said, “Town officials are facing tough budget decisions and are scrutinizing a wide range of expenditures, and [the Waste Management District] is one of those under review, and we welcome that.”