WOONSOCKET – The city has begun seizing the trash carts of property owners who have ignored repeated requests to make good on overdue curbside collection fees.
It's all part of a new effort to recoup roughly $250,000 in delinquent trash fees, said Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran.
“It's a last resort,” she said. “We don't want to be doing it. We want people to pay their bills.”
Though regular property taxes had always covered curbside trash collection, about two years ago the city began charging property owners $96 a year for every dwelling unit they own that generates trash. Due in quarterly installments, the fee was designed to generate about $1 million a year to offset what the city pays the private subcontractor Waste Management to collect trash.
With local government running leaner than ever, McGauvran said it's vital to make the program work the way it was intended.
“That fee pays for about half of the city's contract with Waste Management,” said the public works director.
Some property owners have never paid the trash fee since it was hastily imposed during the last quarter of 2009. It was enacted in response to a cash crunch that fell on the city like a landslide, the result of an unexpected mid-year cut in state aid that came as the Great Recession settled in.
Those who have never paid the fee owe roughly $1,100, including an 18 percent delinquency surcharge, said McGauvran.
Michael Debroisse, the solid waste superintendent, said the collection process starts with a routine bill. If it is not paid in a timely fashion, DPW follows up with a letter demanding payment.
If the letter is ignored, a public works crew may seize the recipient's trash carts from the curb on collection day. The carts are then placed in storage and the property owner in question is denied trash collection service.
The only way for the property owner to get the carts back is to pay the outstanding balance or enter a satisfactory payment plan to do so with the DPW, said Debroisse.
Citing personnel cuts, Debroisse said there isn't enough manpower to run an airtight enforcement program. Nevertheless, because of the city's shaky financial condition, the solid waste division has vowed to do the best it can with the resources on hand.
Essentially, that means enforcement targets are selected at random from a complete list of delinquents. It doesn't matter how much is owed, but as long as the balance is overdue, said Debroisse, there's a chance the property owner's carts could be seized.
Based on the experience of the few weeks the program has been in effect, city officials have determined that it's safe to issue about a dozen delinquency letters at a time. Usually, said McGauvran, about 80 percent of the recipients pay up.
That translates into six to nine trash carts facing seizure from every batch of delinquency notices, which is about all there's room for on the small pickup truck used to haul them away. Each dwelling unit has three carts – one each for recyclable paper products; plastics and glass; and landfillable household refuse.
“Out of every 12 we're probably having to do two or three properties where we've had to pull carts,” said Debroisse.
The trash recalcitrants represent a mix of single- and multi-family property owners, officials say. The City Council recently gave the public works division another tool that is particularly effective in encouraging the latter to pay up, said McGauvran.
The council passed an ordinance allowing public works to deny residents permits authorizing free pickup of bulky items, like discarded refrigerators and sofas. Since then, many residents seeking such permits have learned for the first time from DPW personnel that their landlord's trash fees are delinquent.
The first thing they do is complain to their landlord because they're unable to dispose of some unwieldy item that's taking up space in their apartment.
“That's another way we're encouraging property owners to pay their trash fees,” said McGauvran.