News

Garbage report disputed

Several council members, led by garbage expert Paul Brewer, expressed doubts about recommendations in a recently-completed, $60,000 study of Oak Harbor’s solid waste system and the feasibility of building a garbage transfer station.

Probably the most controversial recommendation within the study is the proposal to do away with the 20-gallon garbage roll-carts (garbage cans), which would mean some residents would have to go to a larger roll-cart and pay more. Several council members said this would amount to a rate increase.

In addition, a couple of councilmen pointed out that the study does a poor job of explaining why Oak Harbor’s garbage rates are so much higher than other cities in the area.

“We spent $60,000 of taxpayer money on a report that could have been done by staff for a small percentage of the price,” said Councilman Eric Gerber, a former public works employee and the only person who voted against the study.

The study was done by Black & Veatch, a municipal consulting corporation out of Arizona. It includes a operations audit, a rate study, recommendations on changes and a study on the feasibility and cost effectiveness of building a transfer station.

Kenneth Martin, a senior management consultant with Black & Veatch, presented the study and gave a spiffy Powerpoint presentation at a city council workshop Oct. 22.

Martin explained that the reason Oak Harbor garbage pickup rates are higher than those of surrounding cities is because of other costs that are included in Oak Harbor’s rate, such as recycling and a utility tax. The study states that the “solid waste rates are supporting other special programs ... that equate to 17 percent of the solid waste rates.”

This, however, seems misleading. The News-Times contacted the cities of Anacortes and Burlington and found that their rates, which are lower than Oak Harbor’s, also include the cost of recycling and special taxes.

The cost of weekly pickup of a 20-gallon trash can in Anacortes, for example, is $7 plus a 7 percent tax. Recycling costs $3 plus a 3.4 percent tax. In all, that’s $10.34.

In Oak Harbor, pickup of a 20-gallon trash can is $13.46, including recycling and the 6 percent utility tax.

In other words, it’s not the cost of recycling or the utility tax that makes Oak Harbor garbage rates 22 percent higher than Anacortes’ rates, as the study implies.

The only things Oak Harbor’s rates cover that aren’t also covered in Anacortes’ rate are yard waste and the annual city clean-up. Yard waste accounts for about 4 percent of the garbage costs while the clean-up is about 1 percent.

Also, the department is still paying on a bond for the public works facility, though the study doesn’t point that out.

The study suggests setting aside money for landfill closure costs and a transfer station, but the city is only currently collecting $50,000 a year for clean-up work on the old landfill.

In a phone interview Thursday, Martin conceded that the rate comparison includes the cost of recycling and taxes for all the different cities, except Port Townsend’s rate does not include the cost of recycling.

“We tried to show that Oak Harbor’s rate funds many things beyond solid waste,” he said.

While the study finds that the performance of the city’s sanitation department is excellent, it doesn’t go very far in explaining why the city’s trash rates for 20 to 35 gallon cans run between $2 to $5 a month higher than similar cities in the area.

Gerber said the city has known for a long time that it would save money to go to co-mingled recycling. But instead of just making the change — like a business may — he said the city hired a consultant.

“So we’re still talking about it,” he said, “while a businessman would have just done it two years ago.”

What the study does do is suggest a list of interconnected recommendations that will allow the absorption of many more customers into the city’s solid waste program, but requires a 2 percent rate increase in 2004. It means big changes in the recycling and yard waste programs.

Martin told the council that the recommendations are an “all or nothing” deal. He said the council would have to adopt all of them for the study’s financial projections to work.

Martin said a rate increase is planned in 2004 because about 175 city residents who are currently being served by Island Disposal will come to city garbage pickup, plus there will be an estimated 2 percent population growth a year. At that time, a new truck and operator will be needed.

Councilman Paul Brewer, who runs the Navy’s solid waste and recycling program, is the most vocal critic of the study and the city’s solid waste operation.

“Our rates are way out of line,” he said. “We have some of the highest rates and they want to increase them.”

Brewer was in California last week to pick up an award for the solid waste and recycling program at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, which he manages. In 10 years, Brewer said the program has won more than 50 such accolades, including two prestigious awards from the White House.

Yet Brewer said he’s upset that Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen refused to appoint him to the committee that oversaw this study. While Cohen said it would be a conflict of interest, Brewer claims it was just politics.

“It was an insult to me,” he said, adding that the city administration resists change and doesn’t want to hear any criticism.

Brewer has long advocated such changes as going to a night shift for commercial trash pickup so the city doesn’t need an extra truck; going out for bids on selling recyclable materials; providing a cardboard recycling service for small businesses; starting a more aggressive recycling education program in the city; and building a trash transfer station in the city.

Brewer points out that the study proposes many of his long-held ideas, but he said he’s disappointed that it recommends against building a garbage transfer station in Oak Harbor.

Currently, the city contracts with Island County for solid waste disposal at a rate of $85 a ton. The city trucks the garbage down to the county’s transfer station in Coupeville. The county then sends the garbage to a landfill in Oregon.

According to Brewer, the county trucks the garbage back through Oak Harbor and over the bridge. He said it would make common sense, be environmentally smart and decrease highway traffic if the county and city ran a joint transfer station in Oak Harbor. He also said it would be cheaper.

Black and Veatch disagree. The study states that it would actually be more expensive for the city to run its own transfer station. Martin said he contacted the county about the possibility of running a joint transfer station in the Oak Harbor area and the county wasn’t interested. Moreover, the study points out that the city has an interlocal agreement with the county for refuse disposal that doesn’t expire until 2012.

The study says that if the city is considering renewing the contract with the county for after 2012, a rate less than $141.23 a ton should be negotiated.

Brewer questions the accuracy of the study. He said the estimated cost of $350,000 to $460,000 for a building at the site is way too high. “They’re talking about a Taj Mahal,” he said.

City Finance Director Doug Merriman said staff has asked Black & Veatch to clarify some of the details in the study, particularly revenue projections. He said he’s still not sure why Oak Harbor’s rates are higher than other cities.

Oak Harbor Public Works Superintendent Cathy Rosen pointed out that study’s proposals are “just recommendations to the council” and can be modified. She said she’s pleased with the study, which is full of “good ideas that can be used for future planning.”

As part of the study, Rosen said her department received “a computer rate program” that allows staff to input different scenarios and shows the effect on rates.

Since the council members had many questions and concerns about the study during the workshop, Cohen suggested that they conduct another workshop in the future.

In the end, no decisions were made.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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