Vernon voters OK trash switch to ‘pay as you throw’
MIKE FAHER , Brattleboro Reformer
VERNON -- Voters on Monday night paved the way for Vernon to switch to a "pay as you throw" trash pickup system, meaning residents likely will have to buy stickers for each garbage bag they place at the curb starting July 1.
In the first portion of Vernon’s Town Meeting -- part two is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the elementary school -- the trash-collection proposal drew concerns from some who worried about costs and illegal dumping.
But there are financial benefits to a town that is facing certain closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant: Moving to pay as you throw allows the Selectboard to take $135,000 currently earmarked for trash collection out of the fiscal year 2015 budget.
Town officials and some in the crowd also argued that pay as you throw -- which will be mandatory in Vermont by the middle of 2015 -- is more fair because it encourages recycling and forces residents to pay according to the amount of garbage they produce.
An affirmative voice vote authorizing a funding mechanism for pay as you throw followed the debate, and officials promised that more details are coming in the next few months.
"Before this all goes into effect, we will do a mass mailing and you will all know what to do," Selectboard member Sandy Harris said.
With Vermont Yankee due to close by year’s end, and with Selectboard members proposing deep cuts in next fiscal year’s town budget, Town Meeting attracted plenty of interest on Monday.
Debate took place in a packed cafeteria at Vernon Elementary, where residents gathered in numbers that Town Moderator Tim Arsenault said he had not seen in decades for Town Meeting. A long line snaked out the door and down a hall, and the meeting began about 45 minutes late so that everyone could find a seat and participate.
Organizers said they had set up 276 chairs, and more were added as the crowd grew. To make more room for voters, members of the Vernon School Board and Selectboard moved their tables onto a stage.
"This is really great to see this many people," said Mike Hebert, a school board member and Vernon’s state representative. "I wish we’d see this many people every year."
When the session got under way, initial discussion centered on the Vernon School Budget, which -- along with elections to town and school offices -- will be considered via Australian Ballot from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the basement of the town office.
The proposed $4.4 million school budget for fiscal year 2015 is up 2.5 percent from the current year. But board members point out that direct elementary spending -- the portion of the budget controlled by the board -- is actually down by 0.10 percent.
"Further reductions would mean drastic changes to our educational program," Hebert said.
Among the school-budget line items that have come under scrutiny is $44,500 in proposed capital spending, including $22,000 for new computers. On Monday, Principal Mark Speno said the school bought computers for teachers five years ago.
"We’re starting to spend money on repairs so we think it’s the right time (for new computers)," Speno said.
Board members also thought it was the right time to discontinue the use of Australian Ballot voting for the school budget. So the board offered an article on Monday night asking voters to return budget voting to the floor for next year’s Town Meeting.
Hebert said Australian Balloting, which was implemented for the school budget several years ago, does not allow for enough interaction between voters and the board.
"If you look around this room, you’re looking at pure democracy," Hebert said. "For us to really serve the needs of this community and the desires of this community, we have to know what the community wants."
He added that, if voters are concerned about confidentiality, they can request a paper ballot during Town Meeting discussion of the budget.
Ironically, that’s exactly what happened Monday evening, and voters soundly rejected the school board’s request to change the budget-voting system: 174 were in favor and 86 against after paper ballots were counted.
The meeting switched to town business just after 9 p.m. Arsenault announced that, given the hour, voters would consider only one town-related article Monday night -- the one related to the pay as you throw trash program.
The article didn’t directly authorize pay as you throw. Instead, the board asked whether the town’s Solid Waste Fund could be used as a repository for the annual proceeds of such a program and, subsequently, as a funding mechanism for the program’s expenses.
Using the Solid Waste Fund provides more budgetary stability from year to year, officials have said. And the cash already in the fund will cover "start-up costs" for the program, such as the purchase of recycling bins, Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O’Donnell said.
There will be no fee for placing recycling at the curb, where it will be picked up by the town’s trash hauler. But officials said a fee for stickers that must be placed on each trash bag will cover the cost of garbage and recycling collection as well as any administrative costs.
Officials reiterated that Act 148, a state law meant to boost recycling rates, will mandate pay as you throw by July 1, 2015. By making the switch a year early in Vernon, the town begins saving money a year early.
"If you’re not going to vote to do this, then we have to put that (trash-collection) money in the budget," O’Donnell warned during the debate.
Asked why the town wouldn’t consider doing away with curbside pickup in favor of building a transfer station where residents could deposit their trash, officials cited prohibitive costs.
"It’s quite expensive, probably on the order of $50,000 or $60,000," said Bob Spencer, executive director of Windham Solid Waste Management District and a Vernon resident. "You’d (also) have to hire an operator."
Also, O’Donnell said the Selectboard discarded the idea of getting out of the trash business entirely and allowing each resident to hire his or her own hauler.
"It’s actually a lot more cost-effective to do it as a town," she said.
Spencer said early analysis showed that per-bag trash stickers, in order to cover all of the town’s costs, may be priced at $3.30. But officials cautioned that they’re still working out the details.
"It’s going to take quite a lot of additional work to finalize this," he said.
O’Donnell said there will be "educational hearings" to explain those details once they are finalized.
On Tuesday night, voters will consider the remaining town articles including the fiscal 2015 budget, which includes more than $400,000 in cuts from the current year’s spending.
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