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

Letter to the Editor: Include Four Trash Options In RFP, Not Just One

Photo: Waste contract in Bemont.

To the editor:

I am writing to express my concern and disappointment that Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has issued only a very limited RFP for Belmont’s new trash contract. Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has asked for quotes only for 65-gallon barrel pickup and has ignored the more environmentally-friendly 35-gallon barrel or pay-as-you-throw options. Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has also shirked their financial responsibility to the town by not comparing the costs between different trash pickup options after receiving bids to the RFP.

Massachusetts provides hundreds of thousands of dollars for communities to shift to more environmentally-friendly trash options. Refusing to request bids for both the 35-gallon barrel and pay-as-you-throw options means that we are leaving Commonwealth money on the table that we could use to offset the costs of these options and possibly even reduce our tax burden for trash disposal. The 35-gallon barrel and pay-as-you-throw options could incentivize residents to reduce, reuse, and recycle instead of throwing away.

The Board of Selectmen has not provided reasoning for focusing on only one trash collection type, instead of requesting a wider selection of options for the RFP, explicitly ignoring direct requests for more information about their thought process. The Board of Selectmen must make an educated comparison of the costs for these trash options. They must also act as fiduciaries for our town itself and all of our children by prioritizing more environmentally-friendly trash strategies. Why can they not make these assessments at the information gathering stage of an RFP?

Please join me in emailing Selectmen Paolillo and Williams to ask them to reevaluate their decision. Selectman Dash already supports including environmentally-friendly trash options in the RFP. Belmont should include all four options recommended by the Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Group in the RFP so that we can weigh the environmental costs and benefits, as well as the financial cost, of the various options after receiving competitive bids from trash contractors.

Rebecca McNeill


Letter To The Editor: Let’s Talk Trash; The Type You Pay To Throw

Photo: A sample PAYT bag presented at public discussions sponsored by the Belmont Department of Public Works in June.

To the editor:

The Belmont Board of Selectmen will need to vote soon on issuing a Request for Proposals for the town’s waste contract since the current contract expires in June. It’s really important that the RFP include Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) as an option.

We’re facing a future of higher waste disposal costs over the next several years because of capacity limits on incinerators and landfills. The state has set a goal for communities to reduce waste by 30 percent by 2020, which will be challenging. Belmont also has made limited progress against its 2009 Climate Action Plan for reducing greenhouse emissions to which our trash contributes. 

We have to consider progress against these goals. Failing to do so contributes to long-term higher costs for the town. Not taking every small and reasonable step we can now also clouds our children’s’ futures and saddles them with higher costs from climate change and environmental degradation. 

Because it encourages households to reduce unnecessary waste, PAYT is part of a menu of options Belmont needs to reduce its waste costs. Reducing household waste is something we need to do as part of our efforts to promote fiscal balance. It’s also something we need to do to be responsible stewards of our environment. 

With PAYT, households will buy special trash bags for a nominal fee, $1 to $2, so that there is a cost for filling each bag and more of an incentive to recycle. It’s estimated that PAYT could reduce Belmont’s trash by as much as 25 percent, which will reduce our carbon emissions by almost 4,000 metric tons. According to the EPA, that’s the equivalent of not burning 450,000 gallons of gasoline or switching about 142,000 incandescent light bulbs to LED’s

Dealing with new trash options is sure to be perceived as an inconvenience for some. Let’s not forget, though, that Belmont’s Town Meeting voted to empower our selectmen to consider PAYT as an option for the next waste contract. For it to be an option, it needs to be included in the RFP for the next trash contract. Belmont’s Department of Public Works is considering an option for automated pick up of trash cans that it refers to as a PAYT/SMART option – but it won’t lead to the kind of progress we need that true PAYT will bring.

As Belmont’s selectmen consider the issuance of this RFP, they need to consider not just the immediate cost to the town – something for which PAYT should be a winner. They also need to consider the long-term costs of keeping our community sustainable, costs which economists describe as “externalities,” but ultimately with time need to be faced by everyone. PAYT can help our community reduce costs and ensure our community’s future.

Mike Crowley

Farnham Street
Town Meeting Member Precinct 8