Four and a half pounds of garbage per person, per day. That’s how much waste is generated on average in the Town of Southampton, according to Christine Fetten, the town’s director of municipal works. “Our best bet,” she said, “is to try and reduce waste overall.”
But while individuals and municipalities grapple with ways to accomplish that reduction, the town is struggling to find a way to pay for what its citizenry throws away. And one way discussed this week is having the citizenry pay.
Blaming the collapse of international commodities markets that saw recyclables transition from revenue producer to expense, the Town Board held a public hearing Tuesday, December 8 , on a measure that, if adopted, would enable them to set fees for transfer station-related activities, most notably a paid permit for the use of the venue for the disposal of recyclable materials.
The measure would also allow for increased costs for green bags used to dispose of non-recyclable garbage, as well as higher fees for the disposal of such things as brush, tires, yard waste, and construction debris.
Any fees would be set by resolution at a later date, but $50 was suggested as the annual price for a self-hauler’s permit, with $10 suggested for a single use, day pass. Single entry passes would only be available at the Hampton Bays and North Sea transfer stations, and reduced rates may be available for seniors and veterans.
Few members of the public offered comments during the public portion of the hearing. Cyndi McNamara, chairwoman of the East Quogue Citizens Advisory Committee, said her group discussed the concept and their initial concern related to how few people knew the move was looming. “Nobody knows about this,” she said. “Nobody I have mentioned this to in the public had any idea that this was even a thought-about thing.”
Next, CAC members worried for people on fixed incomes who look to lower household costs by “making sure they recycle every last possible thing” and thereby buying fewer green bags. The people who use the transfer station are, she said, “the lowest income families in our community.”
Personally, she said she feels like sanitation is a town service. If it doesn’t pay for itself and the town raises fees, then illegal dumping starts to increase, and the highway department has to pick up things on the side of the road, in the woods and, she said, “We’ll still have to pay to dispose of them.”
Summarizing, she said her biggest concern was, “the people this will impact.”
Lynn Arthur, a member of the town’s sustainability committee and the North Sea CAC read a letter signed by 12 community members.
“It is no secret the global recycling industry has turned the economics of recycling on its head,” she read. “Where once the town could collect some revenue from ‘selling’ recycled material, the town must now pay a fee to have it removed. Prices for non-recyclable waste and recyclable waste disposal, staffing and repair of aging infrastructure are all increasing.
So, while the Town has operated the Transfer Stations as an Enterprise Fund Model, where the revenues cover the expenses, it has not been sustainable, and the Town has had to use taxpayer funds to cover the shortfall over the past few years. In addition, the increased year-round population from the pandemic and no financial support from the state or federal government just adds to the challenge of balancing the budget associated with our Transfer Stations.”
Along with an additional 10 signatories, Ms. Arthur offered support for the permit proposal.
“The fee as we understand it, is adopted on an annual basis and has the potential to be decreased should the markets rebound. We leave the details up to the Town Board regarding how much,” Ms. Arthur’s letter concludes.
Raymond Clair was the final speaker to address the board. He noted simply, “There should be no fee hikes. These are tough times for a lot of people.”
The board closed the public hearing, but will accept written comment for 10 days.
Providing background, Ms. Fetten explained that the town’s four transfer stations were designed to operate on a self sustaining enterprise fund model. However, she wrote in an email, “Over the past few years, there have been significant changes in the global waste/recycling markets as well as DOT restrictions that have resulted in increased costs of transportation as well as a shift of certain recyclables being revenue generators to being costly to dispose of. “
By way of example, she noted that the town made over $200,000 in 2011 on paper and cardboard. In 2017, the town received over $98,000. In 2019, it had to pay to dispose of the one-time commodity. This year, the town expects to pay over $20,000 to dispose of them.
The cost to dispose of “commingled” recyclables, like glass, certain plastics, and metal cans has increased by some $30 per ton, while the cost to dispose of construction and demolition debris has increased $35 per ton in 2020.
“In addition,” Ms. Fetten wrote, “our labor costs have gone up, and repair of aging equipment and infrastructure have gone up over the years … So while we have increased the costs on tipping fees, and the green bag fees to keep up with these expenses, it is still resulting in a significant shortfall in the budget.”
Adding to the increased costs wrought by the vicissitudes of the market collapse, the pandemic-prompted increased population has meant more waste and recyclables to confront in 2020.
“We have seen a dramatic uptick in quantities that are coming through the transfer stations since March of this year due to the increased population in the Town of Southampton during COVID,” she said.
Last year, the department disposed of 1,189 tons of commingled recyclables. With the year yet ended, in 2020, the town has handled 1,523 tons of commingled recyclables.
About 15 percent of town households are self-haulers, bringing their own trash and recyclables to the town’s transfer stations. Most pay private carters for home pick up. As the costs have risen, the question has become, should all town taxpayers subsidize a service used by a small percentage of residents?
“It’s important, obviously, to recycle. It’s the right thing to do, to reuse these materials” Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “The unfortunate circumstance we face is that we’ve been accepting these free of charge, and for many years that was fine because there was value to these recyclable commodities. That has changed, and now it’s become quite expensive to get rid of them.”
The town will continue to subsidize the program to some degree, he said, the question is to what extent. Should the people who use the facility be fully subsidized by other taxpayers, partly subsidized, or not subsidized at all, the supervisor wondered.
Town residents for years could have recyclables removed for free, but the town is now paying “considerable amounts” to have those materials removed, Councilman John Bouvier pointed out. The town’s solid waste and recycling committee agreed to the self-hauler permit at a level of about $35. “In discussion, we will find the right number that offsets the current situation we’re in,” he said. A $35 fee or even a $50 fee will not close the waste management budget gap, he said.
The shortfall has been around $800,000 per year, the supervisor said. Ms. Fetten is constantly re-bidding and checking the commodities prices “every day” in an effort to keep the costs down or the revenues up, he said.
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni believes the policy the town has had, of offering the ability to recycle for free, has been an incentive. “I believe that is a compelling governmental interest,” he said. He wants to closely monitor how a permit fee might change recycling townwide, whether it causes a reduction in overall recycling. He’s concerned about “a downturn in people’s behaviors.”
Councilwoman Julie Lofstad said she is also worried that a permit program might lead to increased illegal dumping.
Mr. Schneiderman emphasized the hearing, and legislation, if adopted, would merely give the town the ability to charge a fee. How much it would be is to be debated at a later date. Additionally, because the markets fluctuate, the permit fees could differ from year to year, perhaps even decreasing during years when costs are lower.
“If the recycling markets return, I could see this going down to zero once again,” Mr. Schneiderman said.