Vergennes seeks six-month deal to keep recycling center open

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council at its Tuesday meeting came up with what it hopes will be at least a stop-gap measure to keep the city’s recycling center open — a proposal to enter into a six-month contract with the other four towns the center also serves.
City officials hope a six-month agreement will give all five communities and Addison County Solid Waste Management District time to come up with a plan to move forward after Casella Waste Systems Inc. surprised the city in late May with a dramatic price increase for handling recycled material at the center.
That price increase — which annually would translate to a hike of $34,600 to roughly $107,600, but which Casella would not guarantee would not change further — came after selectboards in Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham had already set in stone budgeted annual payments to Vergennes that would allow residents of those towns to use the Canal Street recycling center.
Vergennes pays half the center’s cost, Ferrisburgh foots 20 percent of the bill, and the other three towns pay 10 percent apiece. The city contracts with a private trash hauler to set up shop onsite, and residents of the five communities can pay $3 per bag to leave trash, with no charge for recycling.
At Tuesday’s council meeting City Manager Mel Hawley cited the “extreme volatility” in what haulers are charged for disposal of recyclables, and recyclables’ “lack of value” in the marketplace as the issues in dealing with Casella. In the past Casella has been willing to enter in an annual contract with Vergennes to handle recycled materials. 
That is no longer the case, Hawley said, making it almost impossible for Vergennes to in turn make a long-term deal with the other four towns the center serves because costs cannot be predicted.  
“Casella will not fix the rate at all,” he said.
The good news, Hawley said, is thanks to ACSWMD subsidies and its willingness to set its rate at $50 a ton to accept recyclables, but only through December, Hawley said Vergennes can peg its monthly cost through the end of the year at $7,732, not at the nearly $9,000 monthly non-guaranteed rate suggested by Casella.
Therefore he recommended to the council, and the council agreed after debate, to propose a six-month deal to the other towns.
“Hopefully between now and Dec. 31 it will become a little clearer,” Hawley said.
Hawley said one such long-term answer is a “sub-transfer station” the ACSWMD is considering establishing in northern Addison County that could replace the city’s recycling center. But such a satellite transfer station will take more than six months to find, acquire and permit, he cautioned.
“The problem is those things take time,” he said. “A permanent solution is a little further away.”
Council members, including Mayor Renny Perry and Lynn Donnelly, suggested a user fee be added to town support, and a recent letter to the Independent by a Ferrisburgh resident made the same recommendation.  
Perry cited one resident with whom he spoke.
“She said, ‘I’d be willing to pay a few dollars to get rid of my recycling … Don’t close the center,’” Perry said.
Hawley said a fee solution is possible, but would add administrative and enforcement time and costs. 
“The hard part is collecting it and policing it,” he said.
By Vermont law, curbside trash haulers have to take recycling at no extra charge, but costs typically run higher than those at the city recycling center, although Hawley estimated about half of the city’s households choose curbside service due to convenience.
The council — and surrounding selectboards — could simply at some point ask their residents to rely on curbside haulers, although Hawley in May said that decision could cause “complete chaos,” at least to start.
Hawley said on Tuesday that with the ANWSD help to keep the cost in control the council’s six-month proposal still represents an increase for the other towns. And he noted if any towns drop out of paying for the center, the costs increase for those that remain.
“I don’t know how the towns are going to respond to this. They may opt out and leave citizens on their own,” he said.
In the meantime, Perry said ACSWMD officials should move to get local community leaders together to work on both short- and long-term solutions.
“They should be the ones leading,” Perry said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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