WOONSOCKET – At a time when residents’ fees for curbside trash collection are expected to double in the months ahead, the city is still subsidizing the cost of trash collection in public housing projects by more than $50,000 a year, according to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.
The mayor is pushing the Woonsocket Housing Authority to absorb those costs, but a preliminary plan unveiled during a meeting of the Budget Commission Monday was rejected by the WHA as needlessly “punitive.”
Part of the cost is driven by comparatively low recycling rates in public housing, including the Morin Heights and Veterans Memorial housing projects. Recycling rates are about 75 percent lower in public housing than they are for homes serviced by city waste haulers, officials say.
“We’re being compared to single-family and two-family homes and that’s just not an apples-to-apples comparison,” says Duncan Speel, deputy director of the WHA. “People in poverty generate more trash. They can’t buy a $600 mattress or a $1,000 bureau. They buy used goods or hand-me-downs that don’t last as long.”
There’s also a high rate of theft of bottles and cans from WHA recycling receptacles, which drives down recycling rates, according to Speel. Admittedly he says, “We need to do more to police that. We can do more on recycling, and we will.”
The city spent some $51,689 to pay the state for trash generated by WHA properties in 2012, including a surcharge of $7,839 for failing to hit a recycling threshold of 24 percent of all trash generated within the city limits. The rest was in the form of “tipping fees” of $32 per ton, including 1,256 tons generated by the WHA, or roughly 12 percent of all the trash hauled to Central Landfill in Johnston.
Fontaine says most cities and towns don’t pay tipping fees at all for housing authorities within their municipal boundaries. The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which runs Central Landfill, recognizes them as independent commercial entities and charges them substantially more than municipalities to dispose of trash.
The WHA’s deal with the city predates the arrival of the curbside recycling programs adopted several years ago, when the city cut off collection service to all residential property of more than three units, officials say. Prior to that time, the city regularly picked up the housing authority’s trash and deposited it at Central Landfill as part of its contract with private waste haulers.
The city continues to allow the housing authority to use a portion of its annual allotted space at the landfill, even though the housing authority’s own subcontractors deliver the trash to the landfill. The space allotment, known as a cap, is driven by population, and allows the city to dispose of a certain amount of trash – roughly 12,100 tons a year – at a fixed price of $32 per ton.
The cap is now central to the city’s dispute over how the rising cost of trash disposal should be shared with the housing authority. Fontaine argues that the fairest way to allocate the cap is to prorate it by population, which allows the WHA to piggyback on just 635 tons, or 5.25 percent of the cap, a figure which is less than half of the tonnage of trash disposed by the housing authority in 2012.
Under the proposal, all city subsidies for WHA-generated trash would end. But Fontaine says the city would still enable the housing authority to get a break from a portion of higher commercial tipping fees by offering the agency access to a portion of its municipal cap. At the same time, the new cap limit would encourage recycling in public housing, he says.
“We’re asking the rest of the residents to recycle as much as they possibly can and we have made significant progress,” he said. “With everyone now facing higher trash fees and pay-as-you-throw, it’s unfair for the housing authority to get a better deal than what everyone else is getting.”
Speel says he had never even heard of a tipping fee before he became involved in negotiations over new cost-sharing agreements for trash pickup for the city.
“Why would we?” he says. “We were never billed for them before.”
Indeed, he says, his recent exposure to the complex business of trash disposal has been educational. And since he’s learned about the tipping fees, the WHA has already offered to pay in full for the true cost of disposing the housing authority’s trash at Central Landfill – so long as the city doesn’t limit the authority’s cap allotment to 635 tons. There’s no need for it, he says, because the city could lift the cap limit closer to the actual amount of trash the authority is disposing and still fall far short of its total cap limit.
“This could be done without costing the city a dime,” said Speel. “Instead they want to be punitive and limit us to 635 tons, which isn’t going to do anything but cost us another $30,000 a year for commercial rates. It’s completely unnecessary because they could give us the 1,200 tons and they would still have a 37 percent cushion in their cap.”
Actually, Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran says the cushion would be closer to 20 percent at current disposal rates. It’s not a figure that makes her very comfortable. As the state promote recycling to lengthen the lifespan of Central Landfill, municipal caps continue to shrink, she says.
“Our cap is 12,089 tons, but the problem with that is the figure is calculated annually because it keeps ratcheting down as they state keeps trying, trying, trying to get people to recycle more,” she says.
McGauvran says the city could probably afford to be more generous with its cap allotment to the WHA, but it has to be sure that it isn’t backing itself into a financial corner by giving away too much of it. If the city exceeds its cap allotment, its tipping fee for the overage would rise to commercial rates.
The city is not compelled to offer any of its cap to the housing authority. But that would translate into markedly higher trash rates on all of the waste it generates, according to Brian Card, director of operations and engineering for the RIRRC.
“If the city is not going to let them come in under the city cap, they would be treated as a commercial entity,” said Card.