WATERVILLE — City councilors Tuesday voted 5-2 to approve a $37.2 million municipal and school budget for 2014-15 which includes a pay-as-you-throw trash collection program and does not increase the current $27.40 tax rate.
Council Chairman Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, and Councilor Karen Rancourt-Thomas, D-Ward 7, voted against the budget and the trash system.
Residents now place trash at the curb to be picked up weekly by city workers. With pay-as-you-throw, they will have to buy special bags for $2 apiece and place their trash in them at the curb, but they also will place recyclables curbside twice a month.
The city will contract with Sullivan’s Disposal, of Thorndike, to take the recyclables to Ecomaine in Portland. The North Carolina company WasteZero will coordinate the pay-as-you-throw program and supply the special bags to businesses to be purchased by residents.
City Manager Michael Roy estimates that pay-as-you-throw will save the city $323,000 in the first 10 months, after expenses.
Rancourt-Thomas, who represents a poorer section of the city, the South End, asked what people are supposed to do with items such as kiddie pools, which will not be accepted by Ecomaine. She also wanted to know how people who do not have cars will take such items to be recycled elsewhere.
While the city has been picking up kiddie pools curbside, such items are not supposed to be eligible for rubbish collection. City Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, said officials are discussing how to deal with such items, which may be taken to Pine Tree Waste, off Airport Road in Waterville.
Rancourt-Thomas also was concerned that the council, at its sole discretion, is allowed to raise the price of trash bags.
“Could that bag amount of $2 go to $4 because we haven’t met the criteria (of the $323,000 savings), or would we raise taxes at that point?” she asked.
City Manager Michael Roy said that if the city does not realize a savings of $323,000, as projected with pay-as-you-throw, the council could decide next year to raise the trash bag prices or raise the tax rate.
Councilors Tuesday also voted to set a referendum for June 9, 2015, to have voters decide whether to repeal the pay-as-you-throw program.
Rancourt-Thomas said she didn’t understand why the city is not having a referendum now to have voters decide on pay-as-you-throw instead of the council’s making the decision for everyone.
“I don’t think seven people should decide on this. I think it should be the voters of Waterville,” she said.
Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said the program should be tried for a year and then the voters can decide whether to keep it.
“Pay-as-you-throw is an equitable solution. Everybody throwing is paying,” he said, adding that recycling is good for the environment and doesn’t cost anything.
“I think it’s pretty good money that it’s not going to get voted down next year, but we’ll see,” he said.
Thomas agreed, saying he thought many people were misinformed about how pay-as-you-throw works.
“Until we try it, people don’t know what it really means,” he said.
Rancourt-Thomas was unmoved by his position.
“However, Councilor Thomas, I believe that true democracy is by vote of the people, and they should have a vote before this (budget) is passed,” she said.
Councilors also voted 5-2 to approve contracts with WasteZero, Ecomaine and Sullivan’s, with Rancourt-Thomas and Stubbert opposing. Councilors voted 6-0 to schedule the 2015 referendum so voters can decide whether to repeal the program. Two more votes are needed on the referendum issue.
Several residents stood to speak against pay-as-you-throw.
Former City Councilor Lee Bushey said he visited his 98-year-old father-in-law last weekend and his father-in-law was figuring out with paper and pencil what he would have to give up in order to pay for trash bags.
His father-in-law, he said, is a homeowner and taxpayer and should not be faced with such a hardship. Bushey chastised councilors for forcing residents into the program.
“You bring people in the middle class down to the lower class by doing this,” Bushey said. “You’re not supporting the poor. You’re decreasing their ability to buy groceries and stay in their own home.”
Christopher Rancourt said buying bags will cost a family more than $200 a year.
“The most disheartening thing I see about this City Council is the smugness and lack of concern,” he said. “It’s the political agenda that’s being pushed on the city.”
He said he some councilors were smiling Tuesday, as though the matter were a joke. He said the fact that people’s electric, gas and food bills are increasing is not a joke and said forcing people to buy trash bags represents a tax.
Mayor Karen Heck thanked Rancourt but sought to explain city officials’ perspective.
“I don’t think people are smiling because they’re smug; they’re smiling because they’ve heard these things before,” she said.
Stu Silverstein, a resident who served on a special committee that studied trash alternatives and recommended pay-as-you-throw, said people must take responsibility as to how they live. It’s their lifestyle that encourages fossil fuel use . They buy things, use them for a week and then throw them away, he said.
“I would like all of us to embrace pay-as-you-throw and curbside recycling; we’ll have a cleaner environment and a progressive city,” he said.
Matters got contentious when Jibryne Karter Jr. asked how long the council researched pay-as-you-throw. He said he felt as if residents had not had nearly as much time as councilors. Officials said the trash issue had been discussed and looked at about a year.
Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, said she gets tired of people acting as if deciding the trash issue were an easy vote for the council.
She said she and others had spent a lot of time listening to people, studying budgets and attending meetings.
Karter, however, said he felt as if residents had to defend themselves in meetings with city officials.
“You don’t care what the people say, and I think if there were 100 people in this room against it, you’d still vote it in,” he said.