WATERVILLE — A proposal to change to a curbside pay-as-you-throw trash collection and recycling system drew both fire and support at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
It was standing room only as about 150 people packed the council chambers to ask questions and offer opinions, in what turned out to be an often contentious and bitter debate.
At one point, Mayor Karen Heck slammed the gavel on the podium, asking people not to clap when others spoke.
“Please try to restrain yourselves,” she said. “It’s not a cheering game. It’s not a football game. It’s a public hearing.”
Passions rose when former Mayor Thomas Nale said he had spent the last couple of days researching pay-as-you-throw and talking with municipal officials in other towns that use it, and he found no problem with it.
However, he said, he was speaking Tuesday for people who might live on Ticonic Street, in a poorer neighborhood, for disabled veterans and people on fixed incomes. The city is facing a proposed $1.1 million budget increase, and people can not afford the pay-as-you-throw system, he said.
At that point, Heck motioned for Nale to stop speaking, indicating his three minutes were up.
“I am entitled to speak, mayor,” Nale replied, to which several people in the audience said they would give him their three minutes so he could continue.
“You folks,” Nale said to Heck and councilors, “should listen to the people who put you in office. You seem to be a little put out when people are clapping. They’re passionate. Let the people decide. There’s nothing wrong with pay-as-you-throw. It’s a great idea, but maybe not for this city.”
Nale went on to say that to generate $1.1 million in revenue to avoid a budget and property tax increase, $40 million worth of new property would have to be built in the city, or 125 homes valued at $300,000.
“Let’s talk about maybe $1 a bag and let’s recoup half of that,” he said.
Nale was referring to special 30-gallon trash bags that people would have to buy for $2 each as part of the new system to place their trash in and put by the curb for pickup. As part of that system, the city would work with WasteZero, a nationwide corporation that would place the special trash bags of various sizes and prices, in stores such as Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets. People would buy the bags at the stores, WasteZero would get 35 cents for every $2 bag sold, and the city would get $1.65.
The city would continue to pick up regular trash curbside as it does now, but Nale said it would be much less expensive to contract it out to a private company.
Meanwhile, Heck started talking about former Mayor Paul LePage, who now is governor, using surplus money to decrease taxes. Audience members started booing and she slammed the gavel.
“This city is $5 million poorer because we do not have the revenue sharing that we deserve,” she said, referring to loss of state revenue sharing. “It started with Governor (John) Baldacci and it is continuing.”
She added that the city is assessed at only 82.5 percent and if it were assessed at 100 percent, as Winslow, Oakland and Fairfield are, the city’s tax rate would be more like $22.60 per $1,000 worth of assessed property value.
“Please don’t lecture me on revenue sharing and the reason we are increasing our taxes, when our former mayor started using surplus …” she said. “Three minutes up! Three minutes up!” Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said to Heck, drawing laughter from the audience.
Heck said the city is having to cut road improvements and other needed work because it is not getting revenue sharing from the state.
Nale was not moved.
“In the fight you picked with the former governor, the casualties are the taxpayers of the city of Waterville,” he said.
As part of the proposed trash system, the city would contract with a private hauler to collect recyclables curbside. People would have to place their recyclables in a container marked as such, and they would be taken to EcoMaine in Portland.
City Manager Michael Roy said he estimates the city would save about $350,000 in trash costs by using the proposed system, which councilors are expected to vote on next month.
With the current system, landlords with more than four units must pay for private trash removal. Those with four or fewer get city pickup.
With the new system, recyclable items would include, paper, plastics marked with numbers 1-7, single-use plastic shopping bags, aluminum and tin cans and glass. Plastic bottle tops would be accepted, but plastic containers should be smashed.
Resident Jennifer Johnson asked whether people can buy single trash bags at stores, as having to buy multiple bags at once could pose a financial burden to some people.
“We can package them however you like,” said Sarah Bernier, of WasteZero “We can’t package fewer than five.”
Items not recyclable include diapers, cat litter, food scraps, peel-off tops on containers for food such as cottage cheese, yard waste, Styrofoam, sharps, wood pellet bags, tarps and demolition and construction debris.
Gary Green, of Roosevelt Avenue, was adamant that recycling must be done — that people can not continue to throw trash into landfills.
“There’s a limit to how much can be buried,” he said.
He said he has at least six bins in his basement and sorts everything. He watches his neighbors throw bag after bag of trash onto the curb, and he believes the only way to get people to recycle is to have them pay for what they throw away. Recycling, he said, is a civic duty.
Stu Silverstein, a member of the Solid Waste Recycling Committee, which recommends the pay-as-you-throw system, said he can’t imagine filling more than one 30-gallon bag a month with trash.
He disputed comments Council Chairman Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, and Councilor Karen Rancourt-Thomas, D-Ward 7, made last week about now not being the time for Waterville to go to a new trash system.
“Well, I say continuing to kick recyclables down the road is the wrong thing to do,” Silverstein said. “Waiting for a better day, it’s not going to happen; but we have in our power to create a better day now.”
Lauren LePage, the governor’s daughter, who grew up in Waterville, spoke briefly Tuesday. She said she has rented in the city and recently bought a home there. Taxes are high in the city and the average median income is $34,000, she said.
“At some point, we have to realize that Waterville property taxpayers are tapped out.”