|Williamstown Facing Long-Term Decisions About Transfer Station|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
02:17AM / Tuesday, March 30, 2021
|The town will have to address how it wants to fund the transfer station.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It is getting to be time for Williamstown to do some trash talking.
That doesn't mean saying, "Our town is better than your town." In this case, it means recognizing that market forces affecting towns throughout the country are forcing some decision points here in North County.
The cost of operating the town's transfer station is exceeding the revenue brought in by user fees, Town Manager Jason Hoch told the Finance Committee last week. The fiscal reality is driven by a couple of different factors, most notably a severe drop in recent years in the demand for recyclable materials.
"We bring in about $36,000 from the sale of materials," Hoch said in explaining the transfer station budget. "It's worth noting when you dig into the details on this, because of changes in the recycling market, recycling actually is a net cost more than double any revenue of any sale of materials.
"In the early days of recycling — in fact, one of the great motivations and why towns set up enterprise funds is not only to capture the user fees but also to maintain within that system — there were days when you could make money and offset costs from the sale of recyclables."
Those days are gone.
"We have no reserves in the transfer station enterprise funds," Hoch said. "Changing markets and rising costs have made it impossible to get ahead in any given year.
"That's how this fund had balances over time, because of the big variables there as far as revenue coming in and volume [of trash] coming in, there was a cushion there. While not the magnitude of the water and sewer department, there were years when we withdrew a little and years when we were able to deposit a little.
"It's been a while since we were able to deposit a little."
Although the transfer station budget of $243,000 is relatively small compared to town/school budget of nearly $26 million, the waste disposal operation raises some unique questions that will bear discussion in the years ahead.
Hoch, who will be departing Town Hall this spring, suggests that, in the long run, the town might want to rethink the enterprise fund model for waste disposal altogether. In theory, enterprise funds are self-sustaining: Users of municipal services like water, sewer and waste disposal pay for the service and those payments support the department's budget plus, ideally, a little extra to create rainy day funds to fall back on when there are extraordinary costs.
Moving away from the enterprise fund model for the transfer station is one of an array of options that Hoch suggested as talking points for future discussions.
In the near-term, Hoch told the Fin Comm that he likely will be proposing an annual town meeting warrant article to allow the town to transfer money from its general fund to the transfer station account as a "bridge appropriation" to help the latter through fiscal 2022.
"It has to be a stand alone article," Hoch said. "I can't, at the end of the year, come to the Finance Committee and say, 'Hey, can you grab $20,000 out of your reserve account and put it toward the transfer station?' They're sort of the church and state of budgeting. There has to be a town meeting action."
But funding the transfer station through the general fund — mostly property tax revenue — is a philosophical question, Hoch pointed out. Not all residents use the town-owned facility; some use private trash haulers. So is it really fair to fund the town dump with general fund money?
Those philosophical issues also come into play with two of the longer-term solutions that Hoch suggested as possibilities: moving the transfer station entirely into the general fund or making a one-time allocation from the general fund of, say, $100,000 to recapitalize the transfer station's reserve account, knowing that at some point in the future it would need to be recapitalized again.
Another option would be to raise the user fees to adequately fund the transfer station.
"That said, the changes over the past few years to the pricing of bags and tags as well as the price for stickers to access the facility have probably been our least popular program change, as people in the treasurer's office regularly hear," Hoch said.
And raising user fees for trash disposal too much too fast can create enforcement issues, particularly in a rural environment where illegal dumping is a relatively easy crime to commit.
"The last [option], and this is, in some ways, the harder piece, is changing user behavior, focusing on overall reduction of waste," Hoch said. "In the past, we may have felt, 'It's recyclable, so it kind of gives us permission to use it.' Where we are now is that's not really the best environmental or financial behavior."
Hoch suggested that changes to the pricing model could drive behavioral changes if education does not do the trick.
"There are some ideas out there, something along the lines of: You pay some monthly subscription and you buy your tags for the year for the station, and it gives you a certain number of bags; once you use those bags, your supplemental bags come at a significantly higher cost than your first bags," Hoch said.
Fin Comm Chairman Stephen Sheppard said he lived in a community that used that pricing model before moving to Williamstown. Another member of the committee suggested the town might want to form a study group to look at the big picture questions and potential solutions for the transfer station's issues.
Hoch noted that this is not the budget cycle to make any drastic changes, in part because estimated volume at the facility is difficult to gauge coming off 2020.
Last year, the town moved from selling transfer station bags to selling stickers to place on users' bags. The change facilitated an online purchasing model, because it allows Town Hall to mail out stickers more efficiently. And it cuts down on the practice of residents bagging their waste twice and creating demand for more plastic.
"When we set that up, we set the prices for the tags based on the equivalent number of bags," Hoch said. "We're maybe eight months into that program, so we don't have really great information to estimate whether the ratios that were used were the right ratios."
And those eight months happened to coincide with a global pandemic.
"The first few months, people were home," Hoch said. "There was a lot of looking around people's homes and saying, 'Hey, maybe I should clean some of this up if I'm going to spend all day here,' and we saw an increase in volume. … We don't know what the new stability of this is going to be. You can imagine there's, in the shorter term, a little more volume when people do more takeout, get more online deliveries and more packaging come to us.
"Until we establish what the new 'normal' is, our current data is wildly uninformative to figure out how to really estimate volumes."