Talking Trash

Last night Bethlehem’s City Council had a budget hearing meeting. Nothing would be voted on, it was merely for departments to present their budget, to answer questions from council members and for the public to comment. Also up for discussion, and the reason most people were in attendance, myself included, was the mayor’s proposal to consolidate trash collection to a single hauler. It was my first city council meeting as a citizen of Bethlehem and sadly, in the end, it turned out pretty much how I expected.

I arrived around 5:45 pm for the 6 pm meeting and Town Hall was packed. A glance around the room made it easy to see who was in attendance aside from city employees and elected officials: senior citizens and trash haulers. Considering the propaganda flyers all over town leading up to the meeting, I had a strong sense that the people in the gallery were against the mayor’s trash proposal. Council President Evans explained how the meeting would work, with public safety departments speaking first, followed by recycling and trash. This led to some rumblings in the gallery and Evans reminded people to be respectful and asked that no one cheer or boo people who were speaking.

As I sat in the overflowing Town Hall (the gallery seats were full and from what I was able to see, the hallway outside was also very crowded) I learned quite a bit while waiting for “the main event” to begin. Not only about fire, EMS, police and 911 services, but from whispered conversations among people in the gallery about how strongly they were opposed to the plan of moving to a single-hauler trash system for the city. As someone who spent the first 30 years of his life in Allentown where trash is collected twice a week and recycling weekly, by a single company, I am completely in favor of the mayor’s proposal. If anything, I’d prefer to see more collection days, to put Bethlehem on par with Allentown’s collection schedule. That aside, I was hoping that attending the meeting would allow me to learn more about the other side of the story and at approximately 9:10 pm I would get my chance. The following is a summary of my recollection of the trash portion of the meeting. Just so there’s no confusion, I’ll be covering what I felt were salient points and instead of discussing the events chronologically (all city presentments were made first and were then followed by public commentary) I’ll be presenting them by topic.

The city administration had representatives from the department of health and also housing inspections discuss the high volume of complaints they receive annually about trash issues. Well over one thousand complaints are received each year, but I wasn’t taking notes so I don’t have an exact number. The head of the recycling program also discussed curbside pickup and the city’s recycling center which they are looking at restructuring. As their presentations were going on a slide show of trash being left out on sidewalks, in yards, on porches and even on a roof, were shown to illustrate that the city does have a very real problem with trash collection.

The photos sparked angry whispers in the gallery basically saying that it wasn’t the fault of the trash haulers that people were leaving garbage all over and that citizens who do take care of their property should not be “punished” for the actions of those who don’t. One of the administration’s points regarding the complaints was that hundreds of the residences that were complained about had no trash hauler. Making the trash hauling compulsory under a single-hauler system would mean that their trash would get picked up and if they didn’t pay the bill a lien would be placed against their property. Similar to not paying a recycling or water bill. One point that a few of the people who testified made was that “only a few hundred” of the residences that were complained about had no trash hauler. They seemed to ignore the fact that while there were “only” about two hundred residences that had no hauler and that over one thousand complaints were made, it’s very possible that more than one complaint was made about the same residence. This could mean that there were multiple calls about the same problem, or, as was implied, that the same residence had repeat problems.

Another point that the administration made during its presentation would be that it feels it could reduce the cost of trash hauling for the average household. Their estimate would be that it would be around $300 per year including the existing $60 per year recycling fee. This led to an outbreak of groans from the audience. Some from haulers that didn’t feel that the price was realistic and others from residents who were shocked by how much their rates would go up. Testimony was given by people who were paying as little as $3 per month for one bag of trash. Councilwoman Dolan made a remark that she felt there should be an incentive for people who have less waste, either because they do more recycling or because they just generate less garbage. It was asked of the administration whether something like a pro-rated system based on volume was something that could be accommodated by a single-hauler system and Department of Community and Economic Development Director Joe Kelly said that it was something that could be included in the bid proposal.

I am in agreement that we should all be trying to reduce our trash output. I recycle a lot. On a typical week I only have one or two bags of garbage. Sometimes I have more, but it’s not often. Should people who don’t generate a lot of trash receive a lower rate? I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but it’s not exactly easy to monitor trash volume on a per house basis. Is a trash hauler really going to audit how much they collect? I don’t even know how a small company does it. Are they really counting every bag? I really don’t see it, but then again, I’m not a waste removal expert.

I can appreciate the libertarian opinions expressed that people want their right to choose and that they feel that they shouldn’t be forced to pay for something that someone else is going to benefit from. One comparison that kept coming up during the trash discussion was how the city was trying to maintain it’s in-house 911 system and not go to an outside provider, but that it did want to do away with it’s current “in house” trash system and go with an outside provider. Personally, I think that comparing 911 to trash is absurd at best and in many ways, it’s offensive. Is picking up trash important? You bet. Is it anywhere near as important as police, fire, EMS or 911? Not in a million years.

All that said, let’s delve further into the “emergency services are on par with trash collection” comparison. Our tax dollars pay for those emergency services. Everyone who pays taxes in the city supports our public safety budget, wait for it, whether they utilize those services directly or not. Would anyone dream of saying that we should only pay for emergency services when they personally utilize them? Of course not. Police, fire, EMS and 911 are services for the greater good and while I’m not one for big government, I believe that something like health and safety are things that we all should support. What about school taxes? If you own property in the city, you pay school taxes. Even if you rent, you are essentially paying those taxes because your landlord isn’t paying them out of the goodness of their heart, it’s built into your rent. Would you suggest that only households that have children in school should pay school taxes? Not a lot of call for that either. Sending children to school benefits the entire community, so everyone contributes toward it.

I personally feel that having garbage laying around isn’t something I want in my city. I feel that it’s in the public’s interest to have a clean, safe city. All that said, I’m not looking for my trash bill to skyrocket. There seems to be the same anecdote circulating of the elderly widow who pays $36 per year for her trash collection. I can’t honestly believe that there are that many people paying that little for their trash hauling. If that were the case, how would the private haulers stay in business? The city administration did some research and found that the average household is paying something on the order of $350 per year, just for trash collection. A city councilman whose name escapes me said that he did some of his own research and feels that the city’s numbers are fairly accurate. The city also said that it felt it could likely reduce that bill to around $240 per year per household for trash collection. There were neighboring townships cited that had rates slightly higher than that figure, but considering that they were much smaller than Bethlehem, it was felt that the economies of scale could bring that figure down to the number the city administration has been discussing.

So in short, it’s my understanding of the situation that while some residents would have to pay more, the vast majority would end up paying less and then everyone would have trash collection. Why is this a bad thing?

Another issues raised during the discussion was quality of service. Just about every single person who opposed the single-hauler system said that service would definitely degrade. There were lots of anecdotes given about how great their hauler was and about one-off incidents where their hauler picked up an odd item or cleaned up a mess that the hauler had made in their driveway. I lived in Allentown for over 30 years and I can’t think of a single time where the city’s single hauler provided what I considered to be unacceptable service. Trash was picked up on the proper day and if on the off chance something was missed, a call to the city quickly had it retrieved.

A number of elderly residents said that they wouldn’t be able to carry their trash can to the curb. Current city ordinance requires trash haulers to pick up trash from cans that are located adjacent to the resident’s home. Theoretically this would change to curbside placement of trash cans, though this has not been confirmed. Maybe it’s because I’m young, but I fail to see this being a problem for most residents. Is it less convenient than having a trash hauler coming to your back porch to empty out your can? Perhaps, but as someone who knows lots of elderly people who live in towns that require curbside can placement, they seem to manage just fine. Are some people so weak that they can’t move a can? I’m sure there are, but I have to believe this is a small exception and not the general rule.

Aside from the physical burden of having to place a can at the curb, some opponents cited that it was not only an eyesore to have garbage cans at the curb, but that it’s also against a city ordinance. There seemed to be quite a fuss over this and how it would be technically illegal and that certain haulers already require curbside placement and that it was apparently unfathomably ugly. Most of the anger was directed at Raritan Valley Disposal, but I can anecdotally say that on my street there are at lest three different haulers and all of them have customers placing their trash at the curb, so it’s not just Raritan. The current ordinance is obviously being ignored, and it’s certainly possible to have it changed if need be. The residents who complained about the eyesore of curbside trash cited Allentown, saying how it was disgusting seeing trash out on the designated day. I’m not sure where they were looking, but I never noticed trash sitting out for extended periods when I lived there, and unlike in Bethlehem, where trash can be collected on any day of the week, trash was only out at the curb on designated days.

This went on for hours. Residents concerned over their personal cost, the loss of choice in their service provider, many citing their personal relationships that have developed with their trash hauler and haulers themselves citing how it would mean roughly 150 jobs lost due to losing their customers in the city. There was a formal signup sheet for people to register to give testimony, then council went around the room asking if people who had not signed up wished to speak. After hearing unanimous opposition from the roughly two dozen speakers that had gone, at about 12:30 am when my section of the gallery was asked if anyone wanted to speak I rose my hand.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, when you speak at a city council meeting you’re asked to introduce yourself by stating your name and address for the record. That’s all fine and good when you have something to say that’s going along with the masses in attendance, but when you’re the only person to have a different opinion than the one hundred other people still in the audience at this marathon meeting, it was beyond intimidating. All I could think of as I approached the podium was that these people were going to know who I was and where I lived and if I didn’t get jumped on my way back to my car I’d wake up in the morning with vandalism to property. That said, as I stood there, voice trembling with fear and my heart beating out of my chest I made the following points:

I started off by saying that I agreed with the Mayor’s single-hauler proposal and that while it was important to hear opposition to the proposed plan, people are much more likely to come out when they’re against something than when they’re for it. Most people that I know who support the single-hauler proposition feel that all of the points justifying it have already been articulated, so why come out and sit through a seven hour meeting just to reiterate them? Councilmen Evans and Donchez also said that they had gotten almost unanimous opposition in emails and phone calls related to the issue. I reminded council that again, you’re going to hear from people against the issue, but if people are for it, you probably aren’t going to hear much and that they shouldn’t think that everyone is opposed to the idea just because they’re hearing from a very vocal group that doesn’t want to see it implemented.

Secondly, regarding the issue of all of the small independent haulers going out of business. I suggested that if the single-hauler proposal was approved that they look into a possible consortium and bid on the trash job as a group. I don’t know anything about contract law, but I don’t see why this couldn’t be done. It would keep things local and residents would maintain that exemplary service they were so concerned about losing.

Lastly, I said that while there was a strong sentiment that this should not be an issue tied to a budget being passed, that if it didn’t get approved, that it should not be dropped completely. If it does get removed from the budget, that it should become a referendum item so all residents of the city can weigh in, not just the small few that had free time on a Tuesday night.

Only one other person spoke out in favor of the single-hauler system. A resident on the west side of town she stated that as a younger person she didn’t have concerns about taking cans out to the curb and that it really wasn’t a big deal for her like it appeared to be for many of the people who spoke. What she did say was a big deal was that she had garbage trucks going down her street pretty much every day of the week and that there was always garbage waiting to be picked up.

The meeting ended at 1 am and thankfully nothing happened to me on my way home and my tires weren’t slashed when I woke up this morning. I thought it was only fitting that as I was pulling out of my driveway, two different garbage trucks went down my street, each one picking up a bag from one house and going on their way, and two houses still had bags out waiting for pickup, presumably from a third or fourth hauler later in the day.

I learned a lot during my first city council meeting and I have a feeling that I’ll go back for more, if for no other reason than to be an informed citizen. I still can’t wrap my head around how some people feel so strongly about their trash hauler, but if this doesn’t get included in the budget I think I’ll need to talk to some politically-savvy friends about how to get this on the ballot in the spring.