BRATTLEBORO—By nearly a two-to-one margin on Tuesday, Brattleboro voters rejected a plan to have the town adopt a pay-as-you-throw system of trash disposal.
As a result, Brattleboro residents will continue paying for trash pickup and disposal through property taxes.
According to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, 2,000 residents — 22 percent of registered voters — cast ballots in the special referendum vote held at the Municipal Center, and 1,354 voted against PAYT, while 646 voted in favor.
Cappy said 834 voters — 42 percent of Tuesday’s total — cast their ballots early via absentee ballot.
Tuesday’s election saw a higher turnout than the 14 percent who voted during town elections in March. Some voters exiting the polls said they wanted to vote because they felt PAYT was an important environmental issue.
One resident, who showed up to vote but couldn’t because she had registered the same day, said she would have voted yes on the issue.
“Even if the system [PAYT] proposed isn’t perfect, this is something that can work with town participation. If people are thinking and talking about it, then they will find something that will work,” she said.
Other voters said they had come out to vote because they didn’t like how the Selectboard had handled the issue.
“I wasn’t really pleased with how it was handled by the board and wanted my vote to say that,” said Lisa Taylor.
Tuesday’s town-wide vote was the result of two representative town meetings, two petitions and much verbal rancor over the fate of PAYT.
“The reality is people have to pay for their trash one way or the other. [PAYT] looks at waste like the utility it truly is,” said Windham Solid Waste Management District Program Director Cindy Sterling in a May interview.
Proponents of the trash disposal system, where residents buy special bags, thus paying only for what they throw out, said that PAYT encourages recycling, reduces tipping fees, saves residents money and keeps recyclables out of landfills.
Opponents of the system said it will encourage illegal dumping of trash, will save the town money but cost residents more, and that Brattleboro’s proposed PAYT system is not developed enough to be effective.
Brattleboro is one of the few towns in Windham County where trash disposal is paid through property taxes. Westminster recently voted down PAYT.
The long saga
The long debate over PAYT in Brattleboro began two representative town meetings ago.
“I think PAYT is about responsibility and democracy and I don’t want to pay for some else’s irresponsibility and some else’s trash,” said Jane Southworth of the Solid Waste Study Committee.
Southworth, who championed PAYT on the Solid Waste Committee, said at first the committee was opposed to PAYT. In her experience, the turning point came after committee members attended the annual conference of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA).
NRRA is an information clearinghouse and provides technical and marketing assistance in waste reduction and recycling.
But despite the urging of the committee, Town Meeting Representatives rejected the system in 2009 largely because the majority felt the logistics and details of the system needed better definition.
Representatives charged the Selectboard and the town Solid Waste Study Committee to go back to the drawing board and develop a better nuts-and-bolts plan for PAYT.
The next year, representatives voted in favor of PAYT after many hours of discussion.
But instead of ending debate, the vote spurred citizens opposed to PAYT to file a petition asking for a town-wide vote on PAYT.
The Selectboard deemed the petition “invalid” on the advice of town counsel. The petitioners believed they had the right to petition on “any action” taken at town meeting in accordance with the Town Charter. The Selectboard believed the phrase in the town charter — which provides that citizens may take “any action” — pertained only to articles that had received motions as voted on.
The Selectboard sent the first petition to the Windham Supreme Court to rule on the matter. Moss Kahler and Leo Barile, two petitioners at the head of the anti-PAYT movement, filed a countersuit.
Finally, the Selectboard and petitioners struck a compromise. The Selectboard would send PAYT to a town-wide vote if the petitioners circulated a second petition with valid language and dropped the countersuit.
“I’m really excited we were able to resolve this amicably. Other [court] options were going to be drawn out,” said Selectboard Vice-Chair Dora Bouboulis in a May 27 special Selectboard meeting.
Brattleboro’s trash future
After the polling results were announced, Kahler said, “Clearly, the people who turned out today feel strongly about PAYT – that it’s not the right thing for the town and not the right time.”
Kahler also said that he was concerned people in town would think that those opposed to PAYT were also opposed to recycling, which he said is not true.
“I’m very disappointed, and I think the process issue got in the way of the issues of recycling, responsibility and democracy, which are the big issues [around PAYT],” said Southworth.
Southworth said the issues surrounding the original petition and letting PAYT go to a town-wide vote are separate from whether PAYT is good for Brattleboro.
She added that she feels the opposition’s “sound bite” approach to the controversy swayed voters to vote no. As one example, she cited the proposition that PAYT would increase illegal dumping in town.
“One could feel the process was wrong if you weren’t paying attention. PAYT is the only solution I’ve seen in 20 years of experience in solid waste that increases recycling and decreases trash,” she said.
Selectboard Vice Chair Dora Bouboulis disagrees. She said the “no” vote is a vote against losing another vital service in town.
“[The current trash system] is something that works, and we didn’t have systems in place to support PAYT,” she said.
At the previous town meeting, representatives approved $40,000 to hire a full-time, one-year, coordinator to support the implementation of PAYT. According to Bouboulis, this person may be hired but the future of the position without PAYT is uncertain.
Other Selectboard members were unavailable for comment at press time Tuesday night.
Going forward, Kahler says composting is key to reducing the trash stream and tipping fees in Brattleboro, compostable waste comprises the heaviest and bulkiest items disposed by residents. He hopes the town will still hire a recycling coordinator.
“[We need to] put PAYT out of our minds and see what other aspects of our [trash disposal system] programs we can address,” he said.