Letter to the Editor: Selectmen Personal Preferences Sunk Pay As You Throw

Photo: Logo for pay as you throw trash collection.

To the editor:

In a Nov. 16th public pronouncement, Jim Williams provided his reasoning as Chair of the Board of Selectmen on their recent trash decision. I appreciate his clarifying the factors that informed the decision to pursue only one option for the trash and recycling Request For Proposal (RFP). What is evident from his letter and from the September meeting where the Selectmen made their decision, was that cost, environmental impact, and convenience were not important considerations, if at all.

The Board of Selectmen broke precedent and procurement best practice by selecting only one option in the RFP. Without any basis for comparison, there is no meaningful way to know the comparative impact their choice will have on the Town’s finances. Generally, having cost information quickly narrows the choices so having multiple options means it would be easier to achieve consensus, along with informing us about the pros and cons of each option. For instance, the last time Belmont went out to bid its trash contract, an automated collection was more expensive than manual pick-up which was apparent when bids for both options were compared.

The Pay As You Throw (PAYT) option was rejected as an option for five years, (the length of the contract as stated in the RFP) not because of costs, or for lack of support (Town Meeting voted 62 percent in favor of evaluating this option). The majority of Selectmen viewed PAYT as just a financing scheme, even though proponents advocated a revenue-neutral approach, whereby the Town would give back all fees to households. This included rebating households on their monthly electric bills. Yet repeated misstatements by Mark Paolillo and Williams and Department of Public Works showed they preferred to characterize it as a tax and something that would interfere with raising funds in the future. Yet no evidence was presented to support this belief, and no public outreach was done. The irony is that the option the Selectmen chose will likely put more pressure on the need to raise taxes with more than $500,000 additional funds needed to buy and maintain barrels and automated trucks.

The experience of 147 communities in Massachusetts has demonstrated that PAYT saves them money by reducing trash sent for disposal and significantly increases recycling.

Judging from the public meetings on trash, there was no consensus on the 64-gallon bin with automated collection option. So it’s difficult for the Selectmen to claim they were acting in the majority interest of town residents.

While it’s not explicit in Mr. Williams’ letter, personal preference may have been what drove his and Mr. Paolillo’s decision. While it’s natural elected officials have their own preferences, these preferences include blind spots–something we all have. To help guard against blind spots, officials can seek out reliable information from a variety of sources. For instance, the Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Group (I was a member) studied many choices for Belmont’s trash for over a year and recommended four options to include in the RFP. Town Meeting voted by a strong majority to compare “all options including PAYT.” Both citizen bodies provided valuable information about the Town’s preferences and viable options.

Over-reliance on one source of information can create blind spots. This was evident when Williams at the Sept. 25 public meeting stated, “DPW are the experts, we should follow their recommendations.” Yet DPW was not a neutral provider of facts. They have expressed for years their desire to implement 64-gallon carts with automated collection. In addition, in a trash audit they procured and widely publicized, the sample used for their recommendations was so distant from Belmont’s averages, it didn’t even come close to representing our trash and recycling patterns. For instance, the sample claimed the average household set out 46 gallons a week of trash. Yet the Town’s annual average is about 28 gallons, according to data from DPW. The audit also claimed households had 50 percent more recycling than they achieved on average. The Selectmen were told of these errors on several occasions, but they did not change their views or ask for a revised analysis. DPW acknowledged the audit numbers were not to be used in the RFP. The inflated estimates for total waste and recycling tonnage in the audit were apparently useful in swaying the Selectmen, but not good enough to use for the bids.

The role of Belmont’s elected officials is to provide oversight and curb attempts – accidental or intentional – to mislead the public and Town Meeting. It’s not easy to challenge the administration of the Town that we depend on for many key services. Yet, without oversight, citizens can’t ascertain that the Town has their best interests in mind when making decisions. The governance of the Town depends on this trust so using unchallenged misleading information erodes trust–something that is needed when Belmont is facing a $4 million deficit and a new high school.

To squash any questions which might check blind spots, Williams recently changed a long-standing tradition of citizen’s raising questions for five minutes prior to Selectmen’s meetings. Williams required that questions be submitted two days prior to the agenda was published, and therefore before the public knew what to comment on for approval by the Chair. At least four citizens have tried to raise questions about the trash RFP two days before recent meetings but were denied.

Where do we go from here? Adding another RFP with additional options that could potentially save money might help restore confidence that the Selectmen care about costs, convenience, and environmental impact and finding consensus as they procure services. They might also support the PTO/PTA Green Alliance’s plan to divert food waste from school trash (it represents 75 percent of school’s waste) and save the Town over a hundred thousand dollars annually. Or add curbside textile recycling that would actually earn Belmont money. There are a number of other creative options for reducing waste and saving money in Belmont if the Selectmen and DPW would work with interested citizens.

With an improved process where the Selectmen reckon with the costs and other features of different options, they can demonstrate they have heard what many have requested, provide good oversight and help restore trust in how the Town is governed. As it stands, we are left with the clear conclusion that the Town wants to implement a more expensive option – without considering other choices, in direct contradiction to the will of Town Meeting and the desires of many residents. We are going in the wrong direction, especially when the taxpayers will be asked to fund an override in the near future.

Kim Slack

Taylor Road

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