© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - The Board of Selectmen will formally oppose a Town Meeting initiative by colleague Caroline Colarusso to reduce residents' annual trash bill by draining roughly one-third of Stoneham's $3.4 million in free cash.

During a meeting last week, a slim majority of the selectmen voted 3-0-2 in favor of recommending unfavorable action on Article 22 of the warrant for next May's Annual Town Meeting.

Worried the free cash withdrawal could destabilize the entire FY'19 budget, as it will use one-time revenues to offset reoccurring trash hauling service expenses, opponents of the proposal like Selectman Anthony Wilson also worry that citizens at Town Meeting will fail to recognize competing free cash requests.

According to Wilson, in the event citizens approve all other spending initiatives up for debate during the Town Meeting assembly, Stoneham may find itself in a situation where its entire FY'19 budget is completely unbalanced.

"I want to put my voice down for investing in infrastructure for our town," said Wilson, who at the time was noting his support for a $1.5 million capital budget, which would similarly be paid for through the $3.4 million in free cash. "Don't vote for both. You can't have it both ways."

"You don't just want to take this $3.4 million and deplete it," agreed Town Administrator Thomas Younger, who has repeatedly advised against counting on certified free cash as guaranteed from year-to-year. "This budget does not rely on one-time funds. If you want fiscal stability, that's something you want to stay away from."

Sponsored directly by a defiant Colarusso, who in early January failed to convince her peers to use a portion of the surplus revenues for the same purpose, Article 22 will ask voters to allocate $1.1 million of this year's free cash towards the discount.

Presently, single-family homeowners pay $145 a year for weekly rubbish pickup and recycling services, while condo owners are charged $90.

During this week's debate, Colarusso was unable to comment directly on her Town Meeting proposal, as she had stepped out of Town Hall's Hearing Room, when the matter was brought up for discussion.

Veteran Selectman Thomas Boussy, who has similarly supported a trash fee reduction, was also not in attendance at last weeks' board meeting.

However, Colarusso has made quite clear her view regarding Stoneham's $3.4 million free cash windfall, as she has previously insisted local officials have an obligation to slate a least a portion of that surplus funding towards direct taxpayer relief.

In fact, in early January, after news of the free cash figure began spreading, Colarusso joined with Boussy to demand action, but they were overruled in a 3-to-2 vote against a trash fee reduction. Since that time, Colarusso ventured out on her own as a private citizen to collect citizen signatures to sponsor the warrant article.

Both senior board members have contended the free cash number, the highest amount of surplus revenue certified by state officials since the 1980's, clearly demonstrates that Stoneham has sufficiently recovered from a financial crisis that began crippling the town in the early 2000s.

"With respect to the trash fee, three years ago I ran on a promise to lower town fees, and I have kept that promise," Colarusso wrote in a recent letter-to-the-editor. "I believe the trash fee is too high, and so did all the members of a prior board, who voted with me to lower it."

"The townspeople have been patiently waiting or the temporary trash fee, which was instated during a financial crisis, to be repealed. But the business as usual crowd has other plans for your money, and that doesn't include giving it back," she added.

This week, Selectman Shelly MacNeill, who was a School Committee member when the trash fee was instituted back in 2011 to prevent drastic service cuts and layoffs, disputed Colarusso's persistent argument in favor of spending surplus revenue before first being assured of Stoneham's fiscal stability.

According to MacNeill, who recalls the era between 2005 and 2011 when the school system was decimated by staff layoffs and cuts that included the proposed elimination of varsity sports, what the town really can't afford is a return to that era of financial chaos.

"This is a mistake…I do not want to see us reverse 10 years of work that the School Committee and Board of Selectmen did to get us back to this point. We don't want to go back to those days," MacNeill warned.

"You can't have services without paying for them. I'd love to not have to pay a trash fee or sports fees, but the reality is we don't have enough revenue to pay for those things," she later said.

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.

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