Letter to the Editor: The Facts Eclipse Allegations on Town’s Trash Contract

Photo: Trash collection in Belmont.

To the editor:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This bit of wisdom from Daniel Patrick Moynihan is important, particularly during town elections. Paul Roberts submitted a letter to the editor to The Belmontonian that is all opinion. No facts. Belmont residents deserve to know the facts.    

According to Paul, his candidate (Alexandra Ruban) was drawn into politics by the “… sneaking suspicion that something was amiss in the town’s relationship with its recycling contractor.”  Alexandra “ … discovered that Belmont this year simply renewed its contract without soliciting bids from competing firms and that the Town had been doing this for more than a decade!”  In other words, she suspects that Belmont has been wasting money because of malfeasance by town officials.

The head of the Department of Public Works negotiates all contracts. Therefore, this fabricated allegation is a slur on the reputation of two distinguished town employees: [current DPW chief] Jay Marcotte and his predecessor, Peter Castanino. 

I will not remain silent when the work of these good men is subject to baseless allegations. Castanino devoted two decades of honorable service to the citizens of Belmont. He is one of the finest civil servants ever to serve our town.    

Even in political campaigns, there is no room for this type of attack. I am reminded of a time when a Boston attorney challenged a politician with these words: “Have you no decency, sir?”

Let’s review the facts about this year’s contract extension. 

  • FACT:  the two-year bridge contract did not exist when Roberts wrote his letter to the editor. It was considered by the Selectmen on Monday evening, March 7, and Alexandra (who opposed it) did not attend the meeting.  
  • FACT: when looking for cost savings for our taxpayers, it often is easier to get those savings from an existing contractor.
  • FACT: the cost increase in this new contract was driven by a wage increase required by the State’s prevailing wage statute. The two-year extension is a good deal as a bridge to a new five-year contract. Doug Koplow, chair of the former Solid Waste/Recycling Committee testified on Monday night and concurred in this assessment.   

Let’s review the previous decade. We achieved substantial savings. Belmont has done an excellent job of controlling costs. There have been two five-year contracts. 

  • FACT: the cost of solid waste and recycling has increased by 1.6 percent per year from FY ’05 through FY ’15.  That is less than the annual increase in the town budget. That is good management for Belmont taxpayers.   
  • FACT: all contracts have been reviewed in public by the Warrant Committee and the Board of Selectmen.

Finally, citizens should understand that Alexandra knew most of these facts. Marcotte explained the history of solid waste and recycling contracts to her in a telephone conversation earlier this year. It appears that Alexandra ignored facts that did not fit her narrative. Governing requires an ability to listen and learn.

In an election year, facts matter. Civility matters. Character matters.

I urge you to re-elect Mark Paolillo as Selectman on April 5. 

Ralph Jones

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 3, former Chair of the School Committee, Warrant Committee, and Board of Selectmen

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Comments

  1. Roy Epstein says

    I am past chair of the Public Works subcommittee of the Warrant Committee, which reviews the solid waste and recycling budget among other items.

    Belmont does not grant a “monopoly.” The contracts have been bid and negotiated competitively for the past 15 years and more. They will continue to be put out to public bid. Any claim that the town has failed to solicit competing bids is false.

    Belmont issued a public RFP in December 2010 for a new contract for solid waste and recycling. A public process involving the BOS, DPW, the Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee, and concerned individuals developed the options in the RFP. SIX bidders responded. The July 26, 2011 BOS meeting minutes summarize the results:
    The Board moved: That, in light of savings of more than $210,000 per year achieved through the RE-BID [my emphasis] of the Town’s solid waste and recycling contract; and potential additional savings through avoided tip fees by boosting the town’s recycling and composting diversion rates, the BOS authorize the creation of recycling coordinator on a part-time or contract basis. The position should not exceed $20,000 in annual salary cost; and shall not accrue benefits. The educational and outreach conducted by this person to boost diversion rates are expected to achieve reductions in waste tipping fees sufficient to pay for most or all of the position’s salary.
    http://www.belmont-ma.gov/sites/belmontma/files/minutes/minutes-file/7-26-11_0.pdf

    The town administrator has explained the reasons for the current two year extension of the 2011 contract. There will be another public process to develop the waste collection and recycling options for the next contract.
    http://www.belmont-ma.gov/sites/belmontma/files/file/file/solid_waste_contract_extension_0.pdf

    If there is “business as usual” in this history, it shows consistent public involvement and good economic management.
    Anyone with specific recommendations for the waste and recycling programs should get involved in the public process that will start soon.

    • Kim Slack says

      Roy, thanks for your clarification about the last time the waste contract was rebid. I agree with you that the current public involvement process that the BoS have voted on is a good one. However, I’m not sure you’re correct with your statement that there has been consistent public involvement on the waste contract. It appears the current contract has been extended twice, without providing our elected officials the option to go to bid or the public a chance to weigh in. Our current public process, begins almost 2 years prior to the end of the contract. Was this on the BoS agenda a year ago?

      Do you think our elected officials should vote on whether to go to bid or not? Would soliciting bids prohibit a contract extension, should that be the best option?

      Would you agree that a robust public process where the BoS vote on whether to extend or rebid a contract is a better process than waiting until there is no other option?

      • Roy Epstein says

        Kim, I’m glad you agree with the public involvement process for the next contract.
        Given that almost two years went into developing the options in the last contract, and that two years might be needed to discuss the next contract, reviewing the basic terms every five years is reasonable.
        In the last cycle during 2010-11, the SWARAC worked with DPW on a wide of options, including PAYT and single-stream.
        There are pros and cons to each choice, and getting broad community agreement on changes to the current programs will be an interesting and probably time-consuming challenge..

  2. Anatoliy says

    Dear Mr Ralph,

    you are misleading Belmont citizens by stating your opinions as facts,

    Your statement “FACT: when looking for cost savings for our taxpayers, it often is easier to get those savings from an existing contractor.” is most definitely not a fact:

    Bridge contracts can lead to overpayments and do stifle competition as found out by Government Accountability Office.
    Sources:
    http://www.govexec.com/contracting/2015/10/temporary-bridge-contracts-risk-overpayments/122861/
    http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/673110.pdf
    http://www.mccaskill.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20151020OFPPLetter.pdf

    From the above materials : “When noncompetitive contracts are used frequently or for prolonged periods,the government is at risk of overpaying for goods and services.”

    Now I am curious to see how many bridge or non-competitive contracts Belmont has had awarded before? Is that data publicly available ?

    It is a bit sad to see that small town issues is a mirror of the big government, I think current gov has a bit complacency problem and while Belmont might have been doing ok , our town can certainly do better!

    I do wish Ms. Ruban good luck in the election process and I am certainly glad that her bid for the town’s selectman has already started making an impact.

    • Ralph Jones says

      Anatoliy, the proposed bridge contract adopted unanimously by the Selectmen on Monday is the only one I am aware of. It was caused by unique circumstances in the market. I agree with your preference for public policies the require full and open competition. Professionally, I am most satisfied when I win a contract based on full and open competition.

      If you read the history of solid waste contracts in Belmont by Roy Epstein (posted earlier today), you will find that we routinely have full competition. He cities the publicly available information on the subject. The current contract was advertised in 2010 and resulted in six bidders. Belmont uses full competition even though state law (Chapter 30B) exempts solid waste contract from competition.

      Paul Roberts claim that Belmont had not used competition for ten years was false. Belmont’s practices are consistent with your preferences. That you for the opportunity to answer your questions.

  3. Sue says

    It’s really unbecoming of Ralph to attack Alexandra. Let’s have a more civil and calm debate. What about a revenue neutral version of pay-as-you-throw? I’m all for saving the town money and helping the environment too.

  4. Dave says

    The Streisand affect….I had no prior knowledge about Belmont awarding no bid contracts for trash or otherwise or that town officials would take offense to questions about it. I wasnt planning on voting either…. But now I know who to vote for and why. Thank you Ralph.

  5. Anne Marie Mahoney says

    I, too, wish to stand up in support of Jay Marcotte and Peter Castinino. As a former Selectman and long time member of the Capital Budget Committee I consider these gentlemen two of the most honorable and forthright individuals I have ever encountered. Suggesting that the process of extending this trash contract was less than above board is a slam at their reputations. And, it shows a lack of understanding of process – how municipal government works and the laws that govern how it works.

    Further, I don’t understand Anne Mahon’s concerns about Ralph’s letter. He laid out the facts of the trash contract. Is stating the facts now considered to be adopting a disrespectful tone? I trust that Anne is not suggesting that citizens with experience in town government cannot question claims and accusations made during a campaign?

    Local campaigns are often the opportunity to raise issues, open discussion, and spark change. But, claims and counter-claims must be based in facts not unfounded accusations in order for positive change to take place.

  6. says

    I respect Ralph Jones and his service to this town. This hysterical email isn’t worthy of him. FACT: the town has simply renewed its recycling contract for more than a decade without soliciting competing bids. My letter didn’t impugn anyones character, it simply stated a FACT – that the town was missing out on the opportunity to realize cost savings in its existing contracting relationship, or to forge a new relationship better service or a different choice of services by soliciting competing bids. Surely Mr. Jones understands this.

    The hyperbole in Ralph’s response has more to do with the last line – his endorsement of Mr. Paolillo. Are our elected representatives and professionals in town so fragile in their positions that they can brook no criticism? That they cannot bear to have questions raised about their performance on the job? Mr. Jones’s over the top letter would suggest “yes.” Unfortunately, it is the right of citizens and the function of (contested) elections to do just that. I’m sorry Mr. Jones’ candidate faces an opponent and will have to answer for the BOS’s continued renewal of no bid contracts for his six year tenure. I’m sure he’s not happy about it. Personally: I am.

    If you want business as usual in Belmont and in Town Hall, vote for Mark. If you want change, vote for Alexandra. Alexandraforbelmont.org.

  7. Wayne Mesard says

    I wasn’t all that interested in Ms. Ruban’s position on recycling…. That is, until I read Mr. Jones’ letter. Slapping the word “FACT” in front of an opinion doesn’t make it a fact.

    Hyperbolic incredulity does not demonstrate “civility”. Honestly, even the most ardent recycling enthusiast would blush to hear it compared to the McCarthy hearings.

    Taking Paul Roberts words and then pivoting to assail Ms. Ruban’s character is sophistry of the sort unbecoming a respected member of this community (as Mr. Jones absolutely is).

    Polemics aside, our curbside recycling program lags behind that of neighboring towns in terms of cost and level of service. (“FACT”, to quote Mr. Jones.)

    Mr. Jones’ asserts that “when looking for cost savings for our taxpayers, it often is easier to get those savings from an existing contractor”. This is self-evidently untrue. That is not the way capitalism works. Savings comes from competition, not from perpetuating a de facto monopoly.

    I’m not affiliated with the Ruban campaign, but my understanding is that these facts raised some questions in her mind, and she had difficulty getting answers. Maybe she didn’t ask the right people. Maybe she did ask the right people, and there aren’t any good answers. I don’t know, and as I said, I don’t actually care that much. Personally, I’m pretty happy with our recycling service. But Ms. Ruban’s questions were certainly reasonable.

    I was undecided in this election until now. But Mr. Jones’ letter to the editor has convinced me. I’m voting for the candidate willing to ask “Why?”

    • Ellen Schreiber says

      Hi Wayne,
      I’m not going to jump into most of this discussion. But I wanted to address the question of contract extension vs. bidding.

      You say that it is “self-evidently untrue” that you could get a better price with an existing contractor instead of going out to bid. There are circumstances when this is not true.

      Ralph explained (in a comment below) that the market for recycles(based in China) has imploded. If we went out to bid in this market, we would get ourselves locked into an unfavorable 5-year contract. (By the way, Belmont did something similar 30 years ago and we paid the price when we were locked into a bad contract.) By extending the current contact, we can keep more favorable terms for the next two years and see what happens with the market. Hopefully the market will improve by the time we need to go to bid, and we won’t be locked into an expensive contract.

      Conventional wisdom would say going out to bid is always a good idea. However, unique circumstances can change that. This would appear to be one of those times.
      Ellen

      • Kim Slack says

        You make a good point, Ellen. Do you know if the BoS were given the option to go out to bid or not? Or was the window for planning to get a bid missed?

  8. Madeliene Marino says

    I welcome the opportunity to join our former Selectmen, Ralph Jones, in defending the character, reputation and integrity of two of our DPW Chiefs,Jay Marcotte and Peter Castanino, who have dedicated their careers to providing the people of the Town of Belmont with a Department that consistently, day in and day out, provides the best service imaginable. We have been so fortunate to have such honest, hardworking, intelligent and extremely capable men to head Belmont’s Department of Public Works. Their service to our Town, should be appreciated and applauded rather than questioned in regards to some supposed wrong doing that never happened.

    I believe at the very least, they deserve a sincere written apology in the Belmontonian and in the Belmont Citizen. It is one of those golden rules we learn in childhood, if you hurt someone, you have to say “I am sorry.”

    I also welcome this opportunity to write about our Town’s trash collection.
    As everyone knows, the Company that currently picks up our trash and recyclables does a wonderful job. I have never heard any complaints from anyone concerning their job performance. I am very happy that the Selectmen extended their contract for another two years and that our Town did not jump into forever changing the way that our trash is picked up like the Town of Watertown did. I have friends who live in Watertown, and they absolutely hate the new system that only allows the pickup of two large
    trash bins (one for trash and the other for recyclables). We, in Belmont, still enjoy being able to place as much trash, recyclables, and unwanted household items, furniture, etc. out on our trash pickup day.

    While watching a Warrant Committee Meeting, some time ago, on the local cable channel, I heard one of the Warrant Committee Members give a very thorough report on his findings regarding the cost of our current Town trash pickup versus Private trash pickup. He enthusiastically supported keeping Town pickup of trash as one of the most cost effective services that the Town provides.

    I also would like to state that in 1990, the citizens of the Town of Belmont voted in favor of a Proposition 2 1/2 override to approve additional funds to keep unlimited trash pickup. Later, in 2011, this vote was upheld as a moral agreement between the Town and its citizens to continue the existing trash pickup. At their June 8, 2011 Meeting, the Board of Selectmen voted to continue the existing trash pickup contract.

    So, it is easy to see that there has always been close scrutiny to the trash collection line item in the Town’s Budget by both the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee. Their meetings follow the Open Meeting Law that
    demands (1) the posting of a written agenda prior to their meetings in the Town Clerk’s Office, (2) that meetings be open to the Public and that (3) Minutes of the Meetings be recorded and made available to the Public. In Belmont, we are also fortunate that the Belmont Media Center records the Meetings to be viewed on the local cable channel or to be viewed on their website.

    Since there is complete transparency in our local government, it is particularly hurtful for our two DPW Department Chiefs, Jay Marcotte and Peter Castanino, to be wrongly accused of something that, first of all, they would never think to do and, second of all, would require that each and every Selectman and Warrant Committee Member “for more than a decade” would have to have been asleep at the switch, and, third of all, for each and every Belmont citizen who either attended a Selectmen’s Meeting or Warrant Committee Meeting or watched those meetings on the Local Cable Channel to be completely unaware of what was going on.

    I want to say that I am so sorry that treasured members of our “Belmont Family,” Jay Marcotte and Peter Castanino have been hurt. I wish that this had never happened to them. It is so unfair and unjust.

    I join Ralph Jones in supporting the re-election of Selectman, Marc Paolillo,
    who has been an outstanding Selectman.

  9. Dave says

    Were competing bids solicited? I don’t think that was addressed in the letter. Very often when competition is introduced it can drive costs down or service up or a combination of both.

    • ralph jones says

      Ralph Jones. Dave, you are correct that competition is the preferred method of procurement. Public policy and statutory requirements at the federal and state level endorse it. Competition is not always the best option. Solid waste contracts are exempt from the the provisions of MGL Chapter 30B, the Uniform Procurement Act. This allows Towns to decide on a procurement strategy that fits their unique requirements.

      On the basis of my business experience, where I have negotiated hundreds of contracts and subcontracts under both federal and state regulations, I understand the choice recommended by the DPW. There were unique circumstances that led the Town to choose a 2-year bridge contract without competition.

      The most important factor is the sudden implosion in the market for recycled goods. The Chinese, who had been sending brokers to the US to purchase recycled goods, are gone. Their economy is in decline, and hey have an excess of raw materials. Oil prices are down. That means that plastics manufacturers can use oil-based feed stocks at a lower cost than recycled plastic. In short, this is an imploding market with great uncertainty.

      If one chose open competition for a new five-year contract, the only sound approach for vendors would be to increase their costs significantly to cover potential losses. All of the risks about the future will be borne by them. An informal survey of other towns suggests that competitive bidding this year has two outcomes: (1) there typically is only one bidder; and (2) the price increases are substantially higher than the bridge contract accepted by the Selectmen on Monday, March 7 (showing that vendors are pricing in the risks of the current volatile market).

      This was explained on Monday night at the Selectmen’s meeting. You can learn more about it by watching the meeting on the Belmont Media Center’s TV channel.

    • Jimmie says

      Right — how can a letter be this long and not address the central question: has the contract been put out for competitive bids in the last decade? Citizens have a right to ask questions — yes, in a civil tone — without being attacked for slandering town officials.

      • Adriana Poole says

        You took the words out of my mouth, Jimmie. The only thing we want to know is if this went out to bid or not. Is going out to bid binding in any way? No. It’s just shopping around. If the result comes back as being outrageously expensive compared to the present contract, then great, we keep the status quo.

        If not we take the better option. The discussion is progressing as if going out to bid would mean we have to cancel the present contract first before we can get quotes from competing firms.

        I don’t think this is the case. Am I misinformed? Thanks in advance for anyone who could comment on it.

        I wasn’t either much into it although I do care about recycling until I saw Ralph’s letter. Frankly I was shocked. I’ve worked with Ralph in various campaigns but never knew this side of him. Scary. And sad to have someone so respectable go ballistic on a democratic discussion. Disappointing, that’s all I can say.

    • Ralph Jones says

      Dave, contracts for solid waste in Belmont have been put out to public bid. In spite of the claim by Paul Roberts that there have been “no public bids for ten years,” this is simply not true. Roy Epstein explains in his post earlier today. Using public records, Epstein shows that the current FW Russell contract was awarded in 2011 after a December 2010 public advertisement. Six bids were received. The Town saved $210,000.

      To my critics who were amazed by the intensity of my comments, I have but one excuse. Paul Roberts made baseless allegations about solid waste contracts that had been recommended by a respected civil servant. Town employees like Peter Castanino deserve better than this.

      In an attempt to create an issue for the race for Selectman, Paul and others slandered the reputation of a good man.. Yes, I was outraged. As a former elected official, I had one message for town employees who provided exemplary service: “I will always have your back.”

  10. Anne Mahon says

    Ralph,
    Perhaps you might read your own words, “civility matters.” There have been concerns regarding recycling in Belmont….single stream, weekly pick up, put in garbage instead of recycling truck…. As I read this it feels like you’re not taking the concerns seriously with the tone of your letter. Let’s attempt a more respectful dialogue when we have someone whose trying to do her best to address the concerns of so many residents instead of an editorial that rejects those who disagree with you. Ruban and others concerns should be respected, not tossed aside. It’s time we pull together to improve so much that’s gone wrong, don’t you think?

    • ralph jones says

      Ralph Jones . I agree with those who say we can always try to do better. For those interested in recycling options, the Selectmen discussed these at length on Monday night, particularly with Doug Koplow, Chair of the former Solid Waste/Recycling Committee. They announced they were appointing a Task Force to consider all recycling options, and to use a variety of methods (precinct meetings, surveys, and large public meetings) to determine public opinion on these options. Citizens who are deeply involved in recycling issues (e.g., Sustainable Belmont) attended the meeting. It is a pity that more citizens did not attend. If you have concerns, apply to join the Task Force, attend public meetings, take the surveys. Join the discussion. .

      The discussion of future recycling programs started on Monday. It will shape the content of our next five-year contract. The Selectmen, and the DPW, want to hear from residents on their preferences.

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