Wasteful spending

No one wants their legacy to be trash, Maria Palmer told her colleagues at Nancy Oatesthe April 8 Town Council meeting. Yet the time, effort and budget commitment for upgrading the solid waste convenience centers in Orange County and mandated curbside recycling lead voters to think otherwise.

At the Assembly of Governments meeting on March 26, then at the Town Council meeting two weeks later, our elected officials talked trash, or at least how much to pay for county-wide recycling pickup and renovations to convenience centers where many folks deposit their recyclables and trash. After eight months, the solid waste workgroup decided to levy a single, flat fee for convenience centers and curbside recycling everywhere in the county. No one discussed whether the upgrades were efficient, cost-effective or necessary. And in my mind, the plans strike out on all three counts.

The county estimates $8 million a year for county-wide curbside recycling pickup and top-of-the-line upgrades to one convenience center. Most of the money — $6.2 million — would come from the new fees each homeowner would pay, with the remaining $1.8 million coming from property tax revenue. Multifamily housing, including low-income residents of trailer parks and apartment complexes, would be hit especially hard as their fees double from $51 per unit to $103.

The plans include spending $2 million to $3 million to gentrify the Eubanks Road convenience center when officials could repave it, add compactors and expand its operating hours for a fraction of the cost, maybe $300,000 to $500,000 tops. Simpler centers are less expensive to operate and would make it possible to eliminate the subsidy from property taxes. That $1.8 million could be redirected to schools or other pressing priorities.

Service flexibility remains an issue. For townies and suburban neighborhoods in the ETJ, curbside pickup sounds like a convenience worth the price. But consider homes in the county that may be off the road down a three-quarter-mile long gravel drive, requiring 3 miles on foot every trash day to drag those big blue roll carts out to the street and back. It would be much easier to toss the recyclables in the trunk of the car and drive 5 miles or so to the nearest convenience center. County homeowners have been asking for an opt-out provision in the curbside program for years, but the commissioners haven’t listened.

Spending taxpayer dollars on upscale convenience centers and valet recycling service is completely out of whack when we look at the long list of school repairs, some of which have been put off for years

Please let county commissioners know you believe their priorities need to be reshuffled. Send an email to the commissioners, http://www.orangecountync.gov/contact.asp, or stop by the commissioners’ meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, at the Southern Human Services Center, behind the Seymour Center off Homestead Road.
– Nancy Oates

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29 Comments

  1. bonnie hauser

     /  April 20, 2015

    well said Nancy. I wonder how many people are paying attention to this.

  2. Terri

     /  April 20, 2015

    “The plans include spending $2 million to $3 million to gentrify the Eubanks Road convenience center when officials could repave it, add compactors and expand its operating hours for a fraction of the cost, maybe $300,000 to $500,000 tops.”

    Where did you get this estimate Nancy? I’m not sure how would gentrify a waste collection center. However, the Eubanks Road center won’t be ‘repaved’–it will be paved for the first time.

    A 3-mile hike to rollout the recycling bin? Hyperpole galore this week.

    The flat fee removes any delineation between curbside recycling and convenience center upgrades. If you use the convenience centers instead of the curbside collection, you benefit. If you reduce the amount of waste you throw out by having easier access to recycling at the curb, you benefit as do the rest of us.

    As a society we generate tons and tons of waste every month. We then take that waste and dump it on low income communities where we don’t have to see it. IMHO anything we can do to reduce that waste and/or make it more compact is a win for society.

    Bravo to the county staff, the commissioners and the city electeds for making the right decision.

  3. Nancy

     /  April 20, 2015

    This is not a screed against recycling. People in Orange County do recycle. We’ve more than met the 61% waste reduction goal set years ago. It’s the mechanics of curbside for county residents that commissioners and council members have not thought through. If you live 3/4 of a mile off the main road, and that is a fairly common scenario, you have to drag your roll cart 3/4 of a mile house to road, walk 3/4 mile back home, then walk 3/4 mile back to the road in the evening, and drag the empty cart 3/4 mile back home. That adds up to 3 miles. That’s my point that I’d guess the commissioners and certainly council members never thought about the logistics. It’s far more convenient for folks who live far back from the main road to take their recyclables to the convenience center themselves. They probably will continue to do so after this fee is passed, but they still have to pay the fee for a service they won’t use.

    I’m also not opposed to the $300K-$500K upgrade, though the Eubanks Road center functions just fine as is. What I object to is $2M-$3M for ramps so people can drive up and toss their trash over the edge rather than hoist it into a dumpster as they do now. Not when our schools have leaks and mold and serious repairs that have been neglected for far too long.

  4. Terri

     /  April 20, 2015

    There was plenty of thought given to rural residents use of curbside collection Nancy. Some may not find it convenient but others will. You are advocating for the vocal opponents and not recognizing the positive impact this policy will have on other equally rural residents. Plus by combining recycling and convenience center services into a flat fee, it addresses those urban residents who don’t feel they should have to pay for convenience centers.

    The older I get the more I appreciate things like ramps to help me get my trash up into the bin. And compacting will reduce the number of trips (fuel costs and pollution) to the transfer station in Durham.

    This decision arose from a thorough and collaborative process by our local governments. It’s a shame to see it trashed.

  5. Nancy

     /  April 20, 2015

    And the older I get, the more urgency I feel to do right by our children, to prepare the next generation of leaders.

    Anytime I’ve had something heavy to hoist into the dumpsters, one of the employees has helped me with it. That system functions just fine as is. Meanwhile, our schools are deteriorating. People move to an area because of the strength of the schools not the ramps at the convenience centers. If we allow our schools to get rundown, people won’t move here, and property values will decline.

  6. Bonnie Hauser

     /  April 20, 2015

    Terri your kidding right. The policy is for one reason and that’s to protect the mandatory fee that was challenged legally. By extending curbside recycling to everyone the service can be called an ” availability fee” and levied on everyone. One reason the SWAG took so long is the the lawyers got it wrong and had to bring in some experts to figure out how to get around the law,

    The $300-$500,000 came from me. I spoke to the other counties (2who operate 40 convenience centers) and two private haulers (waste industries and waste management). Our centers are very expensive mostly bacause of an elaborate system of retaining walls that allow the trucks to drive around the centers. If you want see how it works, go up to walnut grove.

    The Wake County SW leader was very complimentary of Walnut Grove. And added ” We would not be allowed to build a center like that.” It’s just too expensive.

    I don’t want to have the recycling vs convenience center debate – because it’s not either or. It’s about having a flexible, cost effective solid waste system and we have neither. Instead of making it better, our leaders make it bigger.

    I for one, have other priorities, imagine if Orange County leaders took performance on the achievement gap as seriously as they take the waste reduction rate.

    Finally – in all this, I really appreciate the educational and awareness programs that have been developed by the county staff. They are inexpensive and have made a difference – especially for multifamily housing and schools – where recycling is poorest.

    I agree with Nancy and Maria Palmer – it’s time to move on. We need funds and our leaders attention on more pressing issues.

  7. Terri

     /  April 20, 2015

    “Anytime I’ve had something heavy to hoist into the dumpsters, one of the employees has helped me with it. That system functions just fine as is. ”

    No, Nancy, that system doesn’t work fine. Those employees are not paid to lift and carry your trash, even occasionally. They do it because they are nice people, but they are not supposed to. Surely you understand that they couldn’t offer that service to everyone. They also deserve to have running water, toilets, and a place to get out of the heat and cold. Choosing to believe a budget figure proposed by a local citizen with no expertise whatsoever in running a solid waste collection center is more than a little naive, IMHO.

    The philosophy that we should let everything in the county fall apart or be minimally accessible to the full range of residents in order to pay for schools is seriously flawed. The schools in the southern portion of this county have more money per student than most areas of the state. They need to budget themselves to take care of their physical buildings instead of constantly asking for more. Please don’t try and argue that I don’t care about schools or education; I’ve spent a small fortune on graduate degrees in education because I care so much. That’s why I can object to your suggestion. The rest of the county shouldn’t have to pay for decades of mismanagement by a school administration.

  8. bonnie hauser

     /  April 20, 2015

    Terri – the budget figure was proposed by industry experts and vetted with three counties who collectively operate at least 30 convenience centers. The hut and bathroom are not driving the cost.

    a $300,000-$500,000 convenience center is far from letting things fall apart. Its about buicks vs gold plated cadillacs. What’s falling apart are our aging schools.

  9. Terri

     /  April 20, 2015

    By your own admission Bonnie, the budget figure was estimated based on feedback from communities that do not have the commitment to waste reduction that Orange County has. When you talk to individuals selectively, you get what you ask for. And for Orange County, it’s not just about convenience centers–it’s also about preparing the waste to be transported.

    Again, the schools get the majority of the county budget already. If you want to ask a good question, ask why they can’t live within their budget instead of insisting that every other aspect of county life be penalized for their failure.

  10. many

     /  April 20, 2015

    Let me ask a question.

    How much does the county understand their much ballyhooed recycling program? For example where is the per capita recycling rate (not volume) the highest, is it in the county or in the towns? Where is the rate the lowest commercial or residential? I have not even heard a target increase in the recycling rate publicized or how this fee will achieve it, have you?

    I have asked for this information from the county before and the information has not been forthcoming. I suspect that they just do not know. I think for the amount the county spends they should know this information and be able to sell the program on the merits of the data.

    At the level of maturity the Orange County recycling program is, the most “bang for the buck” is achieved by targeting the problem areas not a blanket spending approach.

    My point is that unless the problem is understood at a much finer level than the county is able (willing?) to share, the probabilities of “wasteful spending” are high.

  11. bonnie hauser

     /  April 20, 2015

    Actually Catawba county exceeds Orange County in its waste reduction performance and offer truly innovative services to encourage usage – but that’s not the point.

    As Many points out, incremental improvements aren’t had by extending curbside. The educational programs that Muriel and others are doing with schools and multi-family housing are fantastic. That’s where the big “bang for the buck” can be had with a small investment.

    Who is pushing these investments as a priority? As the county ponders multi-million dollar investments in recycling infrastructure – there’s growing complaints about current levels of service especially at Ferguson and Eubanks

    Safe, state of the art convenience centers can be had for $300-$500,000 complete with compaction, paving and advanced recycling features – and a living wage for county employees.

    With a genuine commitment to service and waste reduction, the county could save millions of dollars and advance its waste reduction rate.

    Its time to focus our attention and $$ on other more pressing issues.

  12. Terri

     /  April 20, 2015

    Many, if you want metrics, why stop with solid waste and recycling? Where are the metrics for education? Is the added investment Bonnie and Nancy are so keen to secure justified when compared to performance of all Orange County students against other communities on a per pupil spending basis? (The answer is no.) So why the brouhaha over solid waste “wasteful” spending and not on education? Political grandstanding IMHO.

    I don’t know what is planned for Eubanks Road other than the plans to run water and sewer lines. And I doubt that could be done for $300,000 so I have no trust whatsoever in Bonnie’s claim to be a solid waste financial expert.

  13. Bonnie Hauser

     /  April 20, 2015

    Terri – they are planning $3 million upgrade to the convenience center- replicating the Taj Mahal that’s at Walnut Grove. The RR water and sewer is unrelated (and hopefully moving forward).

    There are important questions about school spending that need to be asked but right now, because of shortsighted funding policies, many of the older schools are in serious disrepair. Consider the closure of Estes Hills because of HVAC failure or the black mold debacle at Chapel Hill High. Its not a $300 million crisis but it’s going to take millions to fix.

  14. many

     /  April 20, 2015

    Terri,

    We agree the lack of understanding on school spending is a serious and probably more important problem. However, the topic here is Solid Waste and specifically recycling.

    I posit that if the commissioners really were interested in truly increasing recycling rate they would have asked the questions I asked above and insisted on answers before they spent my hard earned tax dollars.

    Because none of the commissioners have asked really obvious questions and no one has published any goals or explained how county wide recycling will help achieve those non-existent goals, I think it is safe to conclude that this whole Kabuki dance is about something other than increasing recycling rates.

    Anyone have any guesses?

  15. Terri

     /  April 21, 2015

    Many,

    It’s never been only about increasing recycling rates. It’s about dealing responsibly with our waste stream, including the costs of transporting that waste for permanent disposal. The more we can treat reduce that waste stream, through recycling and composting, the less our long- term waste disposal costs.

    You’ve lived here for a long time it seems so maybe you remember when the town of Chapel Hill owned the landfill and the recycling services. Since the county took over, we’ve seen a significant increase in efficiency and range of services. This year we met the goal set more than 20 years ago. We are the gold standard according to DENR (who sends reps to BOCC mtgs to advocate for our staff’s plans).

    Would you rather pay higher transport fees to haul more trash to Durham and dispose of through land filling or do everything we can to reduce the waste we generate/dispose of through more environmentally and socially responsible methods? That’s what this plan is trying to achieve ( while also improving the working conditions of the collections staff).

    Once my class is over and I have some free time, I will work with the planning staff to document those plans, including budgets. FWIW, I have total faith in the integrity and professionalism of the solid waste staff.

  16. Bonnie Hauser

     /  April 21, 2015

    Terri – the same hauling efficiences can be had with a $300,000 convenience center. It’s called ‘compaction’

  17. many

     /  April 21, 2015

    Terri,

    “It’s about dealing responsibly with our waste stream, including the costs of transporting that waste for permanent disposal”

    OK point taken. I am completely on board with that goal although I think you will agree it is a bit nebulous.

    How is county wide curbside recycling going to further that goal? Driving trucks all over the county weekly in sparsely populated Orange county is not the first thing that comes to mind to me, especially when the recycling rates are likely as good or better than the towns. What other choices were examined? How was the comparison made?

    I think you get my point. We are in a time when it is possible and very important to make better, more impactful decisions. While I understand that emotion is not the enemy of reason, the data just isn’t there. I believe that this decision was made (sold?) as ideological rather than serving any real recycling objective.

  18. Terri

     /  April 21, 2015

    Many,

    Collections are bi-weekly, not weekly. “when the recycling rates are likely as good or better than the towns.” ” I believe that this decision was made (sold?) as ideological rather than serving any real recycling objective.” Do you have data to support either of these propositions? If you want the county to justify it’s plans, shouldn’t you also be required to support your claims?

    As we’ve seen, Bonnie called around and now claims the planned convenience center improvements could be made for $300,000, and Nancy took that claim as truth. We have no way of knowing what that $300,000 means. However, if you look at the Catawba County recycling website, you will see that 1) they offer curbside collection throughout the county and the cost is twice what Orange County will be charging for recycling + convenience centers. 2) Catawba County convenience centers charge by the bagful.

    Comparisons are only useful if they are roughly equivalent services/scope.

    Claims need to be documented.

  19. Bonnie Hauser

     /  April 21, 2015

    Terri

    Catawba runs a voluntary curbside recycling program that’s free plus residents get a 20% discount on trash pick up if they use curbside recycling. It’s a great approach. $24/month for trash: $19 for trash + recycling. OC doesn’t offer trash so I’m not sure what you are comparing to.

    Yet most of their county residents prefer convenient centers. The Pay to Throw approach is wonderful because there are no other fees. I’d love that but feel that it’s a hardship to families

  20. many

     /  April 21, 2015

    Terri,

    “Do you have data to support either of these propositions? If you want the county to justify it’s plans, shouldn’t you also be required to support your claims?”

    Yes, I would be happy to say I was wrong, if the county solid waste department would please provide the data to support a rational and not ideological decision.

    Even with bi-weekly pickup it is difficult to imagine the the fuel and staff is justified to get something people are already doing for free (bringing it to the convenience center). BTW no trips to the convenience centers are saved because people who do not have trash pickup have to go there anyway.

    So they are counting on some benefit from people who have trash pickup and currently throw their recycling in the trash, or only bring recycling to the convenience center. This is not worth the fuel and staff hours and likely results in more pollution than it mitigates. Even if it were voluntary which it is except for the fees, I believe far better alternatives for increasing recycling and “dealing responsibly with our waste stream” exist, don’t you?

  21. Joe Blow

     /  April 22, 2015

    A very inexpensive way to increase recycling in the county would be to require that commercial landlords to provide recycling. I work at a retail shopping center, and the landlords provide no recycling other than cardboard. We, and all of our neighbors, end up throwing away tons (literally) of recyclable material every year because we have no way of recycling at all.

    Residents of Orange County already have a wealth of recycling options. Commercial customers have none. It would make more sense to look into the commercial side of recycling before adding any more options for residents who already have many options for recycling.

  22. bonnie hauser

     /  April 22, 2015

    Joe – state law prohibits counties from controlling commercial recycling. Retailers make lots of money selling cardboard on their own – rather than paying the county to take it.

    I learned yesterday that landlords of rental apartments can opt out of the fee too – which could mean huge savings. Carolina Springs for example – an affordable senior housing property – has 124 units. Their recycling bill will increase from $6000 to nearly $13,000 a year. The money can be better used for essential repairs and maintenance of the building. But they’d have to contract with a private hauler.

    More and more restaurants are participating in the composting program. So that helps. I believe an urban residential composting collection program would be great too – voluntary of course

  23. Terri

     /  April 22, 2015

    In honor of Earth Day, here are some ways everyone can help reduce waste:

    Start Composting. More than a billion pounds of food are thrown away every year. Help make a difference by turning your food waste into soil. Start composting today.

    Shop with your local Farmer’s Market. Eat healthier and avoid the packaging by buying local produce.

    End Junk Mail. Junk mail is not only a major inconvenience, it also has an extremely negative impact on the environment. Take action to help reduce the amount of junk mail you receive.

    Recycle Your E-Waste. Every year, thousands of old electronic devices are thrown into landfills, polluting the environment, when they can be recycled.

  24. Mark Marcoplos

     /  April 22, 2015

    The image of poor old rural folks pulling their recycling bins 3/4 mile is quite compelling. Except it’s not a major issue. I live 3/4 mi. off the main road and my road is not on the recycling route schedule. A lot of the rural roads in the county are not as well.
    http://www.co.orange.nc.us/recycling/ruralroutes.asp

    Last year when the recycling tax vs. fee issue came up, folks came to county meetings fired up by the cost they might incur for pick-up who didn’t even live in the pick-up zones. More informed folks, who wanted to kick the commissioners around on this issue, knew better but let these uninformed people complain because it helped their cause. For the record I actively opposed the fee & tax proposals as well, but was not on board with misleading others into thinking they were at risk for these charges when they were not.

    Catawba County achieves success with their collection because both trash & recyclables are picked up. That is one big reason why we need our own trash transfer station & recycling transfer station located together in Orange County. This should be our number one priority.

  25. many

     /  April 22, 2015

    Mr. Marcoplos, Many here.

    If you listen carefully to the Solid Wast department and our esteemed county commissioners, the intent is and always has been to force recycling county wide. You may be hauling your recycling the 3/4 mi sooner than you think.

    I agree with you that both trash & recyclables picked up at the same time would greatly increase recycling, however what is wrong with the current inventory of convenience centers serving as mini transfer stations? This would solve the problem of burdening one community with trash from others, and could even be a sort of friendly competition based on rates recycled.

  26. bonnie hauser

     /  April 22, 2015

    Mark -the new program is curbside recycling county wide – which has been the plan for years. And it would be better if trash and recycling were picked up together – in one haul – which is exactly what the small private haulers do. But the county won’t allow them to provide the service.

    Today the towns provide trash pick up and waste industries provides recycling (under contract with the county). In the unincorporated areas waste industries and a few others pick up trash and the county provides recycling. So not only different trucks -but different haulers – everywhere.

    The saving grace in the county is that people can choose bins or rollcarts (but the county seems to believe that we’ll all come around to rollcarts. ) If you’re a senior or disabled you can arrange for the trucks to come to your door.

  27. Bruce Springsteen

     /  April 23, 2015

    Sorry but I’m going to have to balk at the notion that Farmer’s Markets help reduce waste. Everything else being equal shipping things shorter distances than longer is less wasteful but that is but one small part of the Farmer’s Market thing.

    A lot of the local food culture is anti-technology but it’s technology that increases efficiency. So you gotta pick, do you want to have the culture and aesthetics or do you want the efficiency? Because they’re mutually exclusive.

    There is a place for indulgence. You indulge and you appreciate it as you indulge. That’s a big part of human existence. But pretending your indulgence is the akin to efficiency is itself inherently inefficient.

    There is an indoor lettuce factory in Japan that is half the size of a football field and produces 10,000 heads of lettuce every day. Per head of lettuce it uses 1% as much water as conventional agriculture. The lettuce doesn’t need cleaned because it has never been dirty. And there’s no need to add pesticides because there are no pests to deter. (Note that that doesn’t necessarily mean the lettuce doesn’t contain pesticides since most if not all fruits and vegetables inherently contain pesticides because they evolved in an environment where creating pesticides helped them to survive, regardless of whether human consumption of said pesticides caused cancer in humans down the road.)

    Farmer’s Markets and gardens and all that stuff should exist because people get enjoyment from them, not because it’s the primary means for humans to feed themselves. Having a fireplace to make a fire now and then when you’re in the mood is fun but having indoor heating for your default source of heat is much more efficient.

    Roughly 1 in 6 people on the planet spend their lives working in agriculture and it pains me to think of how many potential Newtons and Mozarts and DaVincis have spent their lives doing tedious, pointless farm labor because they had no other choice. That’s starting to change though, thankfully.

  28. Terri

     /  April 23, 2015

    “do you want to have the culture and aesthetics or do you want the efficiency?”

    I prefer fresh vegetables for the nutrition and because they are grown in harmony with the environment. The lack of packaging is just an extra benefit.

  29. many

     /  April 23, 2015

    Bruce,

    I think the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, although I do see a certain tension between the two. For example, your example of people being freed from menial labor by technology, I find aesthetically pleasing.

    The tension to me seems to arise mostly from people set in their ways, blindly accepting something because it supports their beliefs or fits neatly into their ideological pigeon holes. That is why this recycling program expansion is neither efficient or aesthetic.

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