© The Stoneham Independent
STONEHAM, MA - The Board of Selectmen last week hiked local residents' trash fee to $200 in order to plug an estimated $322,941 deficit in the off-budget refuse accounts.
In a 4-to-1 vote during a regularly scheduled meeting in Town Hall on Monday night, the town officials raised by $55, or roughly 40 percent, the annual change incurred by each household for waste disposal and recycling services.
Prior to the decision, each household paid $145 a year for weekly garbage pickup. Condo owners were charged a discounted $90 fee.
As explained by Town Accountant David Castellarin, because the refuse fee is being upped halfway through the year, citizens will have to shoulder the unexpected increase over two billing cycles, rather than four. For that reason, residents are being advised that their third quarter trash fee payment will be set at $63.75 (as opposed to $50).
At the old $145 rate, the quarterly trash statement, which is included with water and sewer bills, was set at $36.25.
Veteran Selectman Caroline Colarusso, a trash fee opponent who as recently as last spring tried to reduce the service charge, was the lone dissenter in last Monday's decision.
According to the selectman, she believed town officials should explore alternatives to covering the shortfall, before straddling the townspeople with a higher bill for what was pitched years ago as a temporary fee.
I want us all to remember the trash fee was supposed to be temporary in the time of an economic downturn," the selectman said. "I think this board better decide and communicate with integrity whether this fee is permanent."
"I get a little cautionary, when I see a knee-jerk reaction to raise rates because of a deficit," added Colarusso, who argued other options, such as renewed efforts to collect on delinquent trash bills, should first be pursued.
Every one of Colarusso's peers disagreed with that approach, especially after Castellarin assured the board that the $40,000 in outstanding trash fee payments would not solve the financial issue.
Selectman George Seibold, referencing Colarusso's longstanding quest to reduce the trash fee every time a budget surplus is found, argued that stance may win political capital, but ultimately doesn't serve the best interests of the community.
According to Seibold, though he hated to raise fees, the prospect of cutting the town budget to make up for the shortfall was unthinkable.
"I know it has been proposed for us to lower the trash fee. Those are political decisions that have been made [in the past] that we can't [continue]," said Seibold. "We don't get elected to crank up taxes and raise all these fees. But what do we want for this town? Do we want good services?"
Board of Selectmen Chair Shelly MacNeill, pointing out that parents pay $300 per season for their children to participate in high school athletics, shared Seibold's sentiments.
According to MacNeill, state law does not require municipalities to provide curbside waste disposal, and given other budgetary priorities, residents should pay for trash pickup.
"Would it be great if that service was included in our tax rate? Sure. But look at all the other things we're trying to provide," the chairwoman said.
"Until that sports fee goes away [for parents whose children are involved in athletics], I don't think we even talk about eliminating the trash fee," later commented Selectman Raymie Parker.
According to Castellarin, the trash budget approved by Town Meeting last May included a $210,465 funding gap.
Specifically, budget forecasts called for the trash fee to raise approximately $978,000, while an allocation from the general fund amounts to another $467,000. However, the costs of hauling and incinerating that garbage is expected to total $1.65 million in FY'19.
This month, while preparing information for Stoneham's Long-range Fiscal Committee, the town accountant realized the deficit is being exacerbated by a $64,000 revenue shortfall, a gap that has sprung up as a result of as many as 700 households failing to send in all or a portion of their trash fee payments.
Lastly, the current year revenues were partially depleted by a late $103,000 invoice submitted by Stoneham's trash hauler. Roughly half of that invoice was covered by draining the remainder of funding left in the trash fee account from FY'19.
All told, the initial $210,465 funding gap anticipated by local officials had climbed by an additional $112,476 in recent months.
Though the practice of charging residents for trash pickup dates back to 2005, when a $150 annual fee was implemented, the pay system was briefly eliminated beginning in 2009.
However, in Jan. of 2011, the Selectmen re-imposed the charge by authorizing former Town Administrator David Ragucci to bill residents as much as $252 for the service each year.
In Sept. of 2013, town officials slashed the bill to $200. The following April, in a major overhaul of the collection system, the Board of Selectmen restricted to 90-gallons the amount of garbage residents can toss out each week, while weekly recycling became mandatory.
Those major changes to trash policy were aimed at significantly increasing the town’s recycling rates, which were hovering around a dismal 13 percent. Since recycling is provided for free, reversing that trend was eyed as a way to reduce the town’s tipping fee costs for bringing tons of extra garbage to the incinerator every year.
Despite the controversy around the changes — the new system was the source of some of the ugliest and most-contentious Board of Selectmen hearings in recent memory — the gamble paid off, with recycling rates nearly doubling just two months after the trash restrictions went into effect.
In Sept. of 2014, after DPW Director Robert Grover predicted Stoneham’s trash bill would drop by some $200,000, the Selectmen voted unanimously to further slash the garbage charges to $160 for single family homeowners.
Two years later, in the summer of 2016, another $15 reduction was approved by the selectmen.
As recently as this past spring, the selectmen debated whether Stoneham should shift to a different trash system, such as a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) model.
The idea, floated on multiple occasions over the past decade, would involve the circulation of town-sanctioned trash bags, which residents would purchase for a flat-fee. When the concept was first introduced years ago, proponents had suggested bags could be purchased for $1, but given subsequent increases in the trash budget, it's unclear if those economics would still work.
According to DPW Director Robert Grover, Stoneham and many surrounding communities are also facing steep increases in recycling costs due to a collapse in the Chinese market for those reusable goods.
Back in 2014, thanks to strong demand in China for recyclable materials, some trash haulers were offering steep discounts for garbage disposal to communities that promised to meet certain recycling tonnage targets.
However, in a massive shift in the industry, the cost of recycling now reportedly exceeds the price of hauling the same amount of waste to the incinerator. Last spring, Grover estimated it costs $70 to dispose of one ton of recyclables, while the rate for incinerating trash stood at roughly $65 per ton.