Sutton Transfer Station needs some tweaking
Smith proposes pay hike for stickers
BY TOM REILLY
Town Administrator Jim Smith presented an update of the fiscal condition of the transfer station as of the end of fiscal year 2012. He said this year the transfer station had lost in the vicinity of $3,600, down from the $9,500 profit it made last year.
For the sixth fiscal year in a row, all of the costs have remained the same. Stickers are $30, though Smith said this year about 200 fewer stickers have been sold than last year, when the town sold almost 700 during June and July. He said he did not think that this was a reflection on how many people would buy stickers this year, and that he would have more to say later in his presentation.
Then cost of town bags is still the same—$1.25 for small or $2.50 for large. Bags can still be purchased at the town hall, at the Sutton Center Store, at Nick’s Variety, and at Heritage Supply.
The town administrator said the annual costs are also the same. The annual cost for a family using the transfer station comes to $160. That represents a sticker and one large bag per week. The annual cost of two large bags per week plus a sticker and recycling comes to $290. Both prices include recycling at no cost. Smith said one private hauler—Waste Management— charges $530 per year for a 95 gallon container per week. No yard waste is accepted and recycling pickup is done separately. He said it was easy to see tremendous economic advantage in going with the town’s plan, especially in these tough economic times.
Smith noted that as an enterprise fund, the transfer station is supposed to come close to breaking even (or in other words, revenues must equal expenses or the town must raise costs).
The town administrator then presented a comparison of the costs associated with operating the transfer station over the last four fiscal years. He said there was one number that was a concern for him—that the bag sales for fiscal year 2012 only came to $75,000, down from $87,000 the year before. He called this “a dramatic decrease in bags sold.” This was particular concern because the number of stickers was almost the same. He said that some of the decrease could be due to residents recycling more, and indeed there has been a steady increase of recycling revenue over the last four years.
Smith told the selectmen that expenses had exceed revenues for the first time in three years. He noted that costs were only going to increase. For example, the tipping fee at Wheelabrator was $69.20 per ton during fiscal year 2012, but it has now gone up to $74.01 for fiscal year 2013. This generally went up about two to three percent a year, the town administrator noted. Salaries also increase yearly, usually about two to three percent. Smith added that the town is likely to go out to bid for hauling and those costs would also likely go up.
“The costs continue to go up,” said Smith, “and we’ve kind of maintained the existing same rates since 2007.”
Smith made the following recommendations for fiscal year 2014: He said the current the deadline to purchase stickers for fiscal year 2013 is August 15. After that date, people are not allowed to use the transfer station without a new sticker. Next year he wanted to change the date to July 31. Beginning immediately, a transfer station operator will be stationed down at the trash compactor to ensure the use of town bags. Smith said he was assuming the reason that the sale of town bags has plummeted while the number of stickers remains the same is because some people have stopped purchasing bags while continuing to use the transfer station. “The transfer station will not succeed unless people use the town bags,” said Smith. He noted that between $80,000 and $90,000 of the transfer station’s revenue was
generated by the sale of bags and the total transfer station revenues came to only $130,000. “So much of that operation is down at those trash compactors and we must insist that people use town-owned bags,” said Smith.
Finally, Smith said he was proposing to raise the price of a sticker fee by $10 starting next year. He said that raising the price to $40 would help offset the decline, but this did not take the onus off the transfer station operators “to do a better job” of making sure that town owned bags were being used. They needed to watch that trash compactor very closely, he said. He added that even with the $10 increase that the transfer station still remained a very affordable option compared to having trash picked up at the curb.
Smith said the recycling rate for fiscal year 2012 was about 45 percent and this figure included cardboard, cans, nonredeemable bottles, paper, newspaper plastic jugs and other items. It did not include things like clothes, tires, paint, batteries, oil and yard waste.
Selectman John Hebert suggested putting a portable sign down at the transfer station next spring to remind residents about the sticker cutoff date. He added that he thought that the $10 increase was “very, very minimal.”
Smith said it was possible that this year’s numbers were an anomaly, but he wanted to take steps now.
Selectman Rick Hersom asked how Smith would notify transfer station users that someone would be watching to make sure that only Sutton bags were being used. The town administrator said that televising this information during this meeting was step number one and that the information would also be reported in the local papers. He said the next step was enforcement. People with the wrong colored bags would be turned away. “It’s just costing us too much money,” he said.
Hersom said he asked because he had rented a summer house in Rhode Island and that town was very strict about bag usage and that there were “hefty penalties” for those who did not comply. He said he was not suggesting this immediately, but he thought it was better than making all of the users who followed the rules pay for the transgressions of those who did not.
Selectman Ken Stuart said the town made a $9,500 profit last year and lost money last year. He wondered if there wasn’t a fundamental flaw in the system and wondered if it made sense to look into curbside service for the town instead of having a transfer station. Instead of bringing trash to the transfer station, maybe it made sense hiring a hauler to pick up solid waste, Stuart suggested.
Smith said he had not considered going out to bid to a private hauler, though perhaps this might be something that could be done in the future. He said he had no doubt that the town’s bid would net a “competitive rate”, but that six of the seven haulers in town would be disappointed by the results.
Stuart asked how many years of expens- es coming in ahead of revenues would it take before Smith would consider trying something else and the town administrator said that the town had made significant progress over the past six years “because of our ‘constant improvement’ attitude.” He said that he and town accountant Tim Harrison look at these figures monthly and maybe they “dropped the ball” in not moving more quickly on the declining bag sales. Smith said he liked to have a positive attitude on things and that the efficiencies and staffing changes—the transfer station staff has been greatly reduced over the past four years—were making a difference. The transfer station was now open one night a week for those who could not go on Saturdays. He said that probably all of the
efficiency changes that could be made were already in place. “Now we’ve got to be tougher on the bag sales and maybe raise the rates a little to make it more effective,” said Smith.
Selectman Mike Chizy said that more communities were looking to emulate Sutton and go to “pay as you throw” operations at their transfer stations “because they’re losing money every year.” He said that when the state made the town shut down its landfill was the decision of whether to go to a transfer station or curbside service. He said one of the potential problems with curbside service was the narrowness of the roads “especially in the morning with school buses.” He said he thought the town had a good transfer station and all it needed “was to be tweaked a bit.” He urged Smith to keep an eye on people going down to the transfer station, that it was human nature to try and get away with something.
Hebert said it would be hard to find a transfer station that is “cleaner, neater and better run than the one in Sutton.” He said he thought the town had to pay attention to the compactors and the bag issue, but that more than one year was needed before it was time to start making changes.