All quiet on the Garbage Front

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The question of curbside trash pickup service levels has been put to rest, at least for a few months. Whatcom County Council agreed on November 10 to withdraw an ordinance sponsored by Foothills councilmember Tyler Byrd that would reduce service levels and would eliminate the county’s role in collecting revenue for Cando Recycling and Disposal, the company providing the service.

The ordinance was scheduled to be introduced for a second time at council’s regular meeting but had been delayed in order for it to be discussed at the next meeting of council’s health and public safety sub-committee on the afternoon of November 10. The ordinance called for curbside trash pickup to be reduced from twice monthly to one 32-gallon can pickup per month. The Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) had recommended the service cut in a letter to county council at its October 15 virtual meeting. The letter also recommended that the current method of billing through property tax statements be retained. That element was dropped following conversations with county treasurer Steven Oliver, Byrd told council.

The session began with an overview by Jeff Hegedus from the county health department who reminded council that the current system was the result of a two-year collaborative process. “Cando has high operational costs having to go through two borders to dispose of solid waste,” he said, adding the company only has 1,910 customers versus SSC’s 45,000 and Nooksack Valley Disposal & Recycling’s 7,000 customers, referring to the county’s two other disposal companies. “When 75 percent of your customers live in a foreign country, billing can be very difficult,” Hegedus said.

Hegedus described the system as very successful and said immediately after its introduction in 2019, there were reduced number of reports of garbage in ditches or illegally dumped in commercial trash bins. Under the latest rate review by the WUTC, curbside trash pickup rates had been reduced, he said, compared to Bellingham where rates have gone up 35 percent.

Council member Rud Browne was blunt, saying, “Quite frankly, I don’t have patience with this issue. The reality is, this is an ongoing feud between a small group of people and the provider. I don’t know why we keep having this discussion when the service level is overwhelmingly supported by the majority of the people.”

Browne’s assessment was later echoed by county executive Satpal Sidhu who said, “It is a family feud and it has given a black eye to Point Roberts. I think the savings going from two cans to one can is only going to be a dollar and then we’ll get complaints about why people are getting less service and not saving any money. This garbage issue is sucking up all of the oxygen without any benefits to the community.”

Kathy Kershner questioned whether PRCAC’s recommendations reflect the position of the people. Allison Calder, who represents the voters’ association on PRCAC, had put forward the motion at the October 15 virtual PRCAC meeting recommending the county decrease the minimum service level from 26 32-gallon cans annually to 12, with pickup dates remaining at the discretion of the property owner. 

“I would ask that PRCAC send a letter to the county asking for a level of service that better fits the needs of the community,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t sign up for more frequent service if you need it, but it creates a more even playing field and it creates an incentive to audit yourself and be more environmentally conscious.”

At-large committee member Pamala Sheppard supported the motion as being more equitable for owners of property they use seasonally. “Right now, our cabin owners aren’t using the service at all,” she said. Steve Wolff, representing the taxpayers’ association, also voted in favor of the motion. Chamber of commerce representative Judson Meraw was absent.

Committee chair and at-large member Stephen Falk voted against the motion. “We don’t really know what the larger community feels about this,” he said. Falk said he would prefer PRCAC ask the county to review the system and propose changes rather than asking for the reduction directly.

“I don’t put much stock in concern for our part-time residents who aren’t seeing the full benefit of the service at this time. It’s a community service like others,” Falk said, comparing it to roads, fire, water and school systems. He also speculated there would be minimal cost savings with the lower service level due to fixed costs for Cando.

In an email exchange following the meeting, board members speculated the cost savings if the lower service level were adopted would be from $2 to $4 per month for households that sign up for the minimum 12 cans service level.

“That defeats the purpose other than being more environmentally friendly. I have store and home garbage so this would actually increase my garbage bill and not help my neighbors at all,” Sheppard wrote.

Apart from leaving the issue in committee, county council did not appear to reach any conclusion. Todd Donovan moved “to hold it in committee and work on it some more. I’d need to have more information.” Following discussion about asking the WUTC to determine what the rate would be for one can a month service, Hegedus suggested to council that it should be put before the community once they had information from the WUTC on which to base a decision. Kershner wanted to know how many seasonal residents there are, saying, “I think we should be representing the permanent residents.”

Concluding the discussion, Byrd argued against continuing the county’s current role in acting as a collection agent for the company, pointing out that the county did not provide the service for any other private company. Dropping the county’s role would introduce a stalking horse – without the county in the mix, the WUTC could establish new rates at any time in the future without regard to county deadlines. Rates for the service should be set before the end of November in order to set the county’s tax roll for the 2021 tax year.

The rates are determined by the Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission which would have been unable to hold a rate hearing in time to make the treasurer’s deadline thus leaving the service level and rates unchanged for 2021.

Byrd’s suggestion met with little or no support by the other council members.

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