Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Our community wants to recycle plastics: Our publicly funded institutions should support the effort


Distributed to Helena Citizens Council Night of March Meeting
March 27 Memo 1 of 2 Pages
Executive leadership at the City of Helena is looking at and seeking public comment regarding the plastics recycling program at the City of Helena Transfer Station. The public works director and other executive leadership from the city and county public works presented to the Helena Citizen Council at March 27 and to the Helena Citizens Conservation Board April 11 with the following memo. A presentation to the Scratch Gravel Landfill District Board, the board in charge of the solid waste assessment for the 14,000 residents of the Helena Valley, is tentatively scheduled for their next meeting. The memo provided at the first two meetings follows in these two images (click on images to view):
Distributed to Helena Citizens Council Night of March Meeting
March 27 Memo - Other Page

This memo and the presentations thus far seek simple input: Whether to discontinue a costly uncertain program that is bad for the environment as is, option 1; or discontinue the bad, the carbon-intensive program but encourage curbside program for those who want to recycle, option 2. Before you get too discouraged, you should know that the program is not bad for the environment and it is more than paid for by the solid waste assessments we pay in this community. 

The memo illustrates the well-advertised views of some executive staff at the city, generally those in charge of our local solid waste regime. It does not accurately reflect the situation with plastics recycling in Helena nor acknowledge the promise of what we pay for in Helena, which is supposed to include recycling and other beneficial diversion options as a priority. (A yet to be written, "Option 3" encouraged at the March 27 meeting would be to still eliminate the program but encourage education and policy against using plastics--nothing wrong with that but the decision here is about the role of public infrastructure we pay for already) 

Regarding the memo and this "dollar and cents" decision as defined by the cities public works director:
  • Plastics recycling saves a substantial amount of energy and water relative to virgin plastics in manufacturing; local recyclers are not landfilling this material. This recent study outlined at PlasticNews.com shows the benefit:

    Screenshots from this link April 23, 2019 

    • While the memo hints at the complexity of recycling, Helena's limited program for type 1 and 2 plastics goes to Helena Recycling. As owner John Hilton noted at both meetings, the cost increase to bale plastics reflects his need to cover costs as domestic mills are paying little to nothing for plastic supply due to high supply following changes in policies in China (addressing contamination from programs that do not have the quality control we have in Helena's programs). 

  • Helena and Lewis & Clark County promised an Integrated Solid Waste Management System (a focus on diversion over landfilling) including free curbside recycling in the city AND full recycling services at the landfill. 

  • Helena Independent Record 10/4/1993Helena Independent Record 10/4/1993

      • These articles from the Independent Record shows one example from when the community elected for the public landfill, transfer station and collection service option with a promise of recycling. More examples posted here.  
    • The solid waste assessments in our community are more than $3,000,000!
        • $1,761,000 + $1,232,000 + $110,000 = $2,993,000
        • City Assessment: 176.10 x 10,000 = 1,761,000
        • Scratch Gravel Solid Waste District: 14,000 x $88 = 1,232,000
        • *City Landfill District:  ~$110,000 per year in 2013
          *City residents and commercial properties also pay into a landfill district. This assessment was around $110,000 but has increased substantially after storm water flooded the old landfill for a couple of years.  This district was previously paid for as part of the per ton rate at the scale.  
        • The increased cost for plastics recycling is $6,000; just 16.5 cents per residence for the upcoming budget.
    • The budgets of these operations are over-capitalized.
      • Much of the recent $1,000,000 renovations currently and over the last few years at the transfer station were not recommended by the "2014 Efficiency Study." They do not prioritize diversion or other service but rather the opposite with a focus on the tonnage of trash. There are needs the city and country taxpayer-financed operation should be investing in like household hazardous waste to prevent dumping or abandoning of items not collected in town--e.g.the hex chromium that shutdown treatment at our wastewater plant.
      • Even through funded primarily by assessments, these operations are managed and discussed as if an enterprise as shown in the most recent meeting minutes of the Scratch Gravel Solid Waste District. (siteminutes)
    • This is part of a disturbing trend to limit services to residents while focusing on trash tonnage through the transfer station and the landfill as advanced by executive staff at the city and county. Just focusing on recommendations since the "2014 Efficiency Study," these include:
      • Minimum tipping fees, originally brought to the city commission to include NO free visits to the transfer station for taxpaying residents and at a level that would allow less than one visit a month for county residents before they'd be cash customers.
      • Elimination of the compost program for yard waste. Compost was presented as being a substantial cost but had substantial savings for tax-payer though it was a "loss" to the landfill. 
      • Proposed weekend closure of the transfer station. 
      • Note: I am only listing more recent items following the 2014 Efficiency Study which was controlled by those it was supposed to review. Getting rid of alleyway collection and other considerations risk increasing cost while reducing service.
    • Also missing: An option to improve the current plastics program
    • Courtesy M. Nelson, 2019
      Baler at Lake Co., MT Transfer Station
      • There are other collection models for plastic in Montana, such as this program in Kalispell using collection trucks or at the Lake County Transfer Station where separated type 1 and 2 plastics are baled and sold to a local recycling company.

      • Larger hopper, maybe using the recycling area like a Z-wall to allow more storage might help with staff time and service for example.
        Marysville Transfer Station - Elsaesser, M. 4/21/19
      • Other exciting options for include taking the hard to recycle plastics and breaking it down into diesel fuel and natural gas being explored by Boise as told in this story.

      • Options like this will only be possible if our community is investing in recycling and like efforts with our public institutions. The current focus with priority to get more tonnage to the landfill excludes such opportunities and makes alternatives less economically viable. 

    Our local solid waste regime should be looking to expand services that serve our community not limit them with a clear goal of more trash to the landfill. This should include programs for household hazardous waste to protect our water (the terrible example of chromium), allow and encourage beneficial diversion of other items (like concrete and brick for soft fill or the less intensive construction and demolition landfill), and additional recycling options at and outside the transfer station such as additional drop-off sites for the Helena Valley. Many, probably most, residents do not use all of the tons of trash they have. That revenue to be accounted for in a way that allows these other services.

    There are other beneficial policies and actions to consider about plastic pollution locally and globally--another theme used in the pitch for option 2 to cancel the program. The public works director cited a bottle deposit as his solution; plastic bags bans and education have also been part of the discussion as alternatives to plastics recycling at the transfer station.  None of these other initiatives require the city to first cancel plastic recycling at the transfer station. All of them would only be helped by a genuine focus on beneficial diversion of waste at our public transfer station and in the related operations.  None of them start with a pennywise ton foolish elimination of service and access for recycling this community pays for and deserves in our public infrastructure and services. 

    While this issue is not formally up for public comment yet, public comment has been sought by the above memo to two city advisory groups already and will go to the city commission at some point. County residents are impacted too, especially those who self-haul and would like to recycle. One way to join the discussion is on Facebook with "End Plastics Pollution Helena."  You should also let your elected officials, including our Helena Citizen Council representatives, know you support the tax dollars you already pay for these services increasing not decreasing. Our community has a great opportunity to have more recycling but only if our public infrastructure is part of the effort. 

    - Matt E

    Helena Resident. Former City Commissioner. Recycling since freshman year at Carroll College. Owner of 406 Recycling. 

    p.s. I will add more resources to this page as time allows.

    Tuesday, January 23, 2018

    Snowplow Shutdown. Why is snow removal such a problem in Helena?

    Thank you, Mayor Collins, for acknowledging that snow management needs to be better in the City of Helena. Thank you to the commissioners seconding those comments as reported in today's Helena Independent Record

    Commissioner Noonan's comments, in particular, are indicative of the challenge the mostly new commission faces in working to address this issue: 

    "I feel frustrated," Noonan wrote, "but maybe we can find a different approach, as well as make some inroads into convincing staff we need an approach specific to this winter's specific circumstance."

    Commissioner Noonan is spot on that a specific approach is needed that depends on the actual conditions facing the city's public works department. And too, his hint that there is a challenge to getting upper city management to acknowledge the need for such as approach. Getting such acknowledgment, genuinely reviewing the current situation, and advancing management improvement will likely be very difficult for the part-time commission. 

    Today's response by the City Manager and Public Works Director echo those following "Carmageddon" in 2012 when more than a hundred accidents occurred including a police vehicle being hit six times trying to warn drivers on their way home as reported here. On that day, all city drivers for the city's trucks had already gone home for the day when the roads iced up later in the afternoon.
    "Carmageddon" in 2012.

    A self-review of snow plowing in 2014 by the City Manager, Public Works Director, and some other executive city staff concluded that Helena's bizarre "complaint driven" system could not be improved upon. Some of the correspondence around that review follows here:

    To truly improve snow plowing policy in Helena, the Commission will need to find a way to independently review the current operation. It is not fair for their time, nor the public they represent to have to be spent debating various actions such using de-icer that may improve things in some areas (a plowed intersection), or not work in another (most streets where we'd just get slush that would have an impact to some vehicles). Nor to pretend that the current "policy" works when much of town is covered in dangerous tundra packed down by cars for days or longer making a mockery of sidewalk enforcement, endangering anyone walking or driving on the streets, costing other departments, and damaging the clear roads with heavy garbage trucks that will need chains for weeks or more longer than necessary. Nor would it be fair to expect executive staff to review their own work.  

    A Helena family fights flooding
    in Spring 2015 while City Water Crews
    work by hand to clear blocked drains
    on a weekend with hand tools. Even with
    twenty or thirty trucks, it's not clear that this
    would have been prevented by the current
    plowing regime. How current resources are deployed,
     not whether they are available
    should be the first question.  
    Tracking the deployment, routes, and operations of the trucks would be a start. Doing so is affordable and common, even for many small businesses already. It would provide a clear picture of how many hours the trucks are deployed and might snow the real cost of not plowing initially. It would create a record that could be reviewed by an expert and hopefully set the groundwork for showing when and where city street trucks are plowing, sanding, and sweeping to allow residents to move their vehicles to help improve results. 

    Increasing transparency at the city overall will take longer but is long overdue. While it will be resisted by some management at the city, it will help the public follow and contribute to a better run city, allow commissioners to be more effective, and-hopefully-lead to more acceptance by some executive staff of the commission's role to bring forth ideas to improve services in our community. 

    The truck driver did an excellent job here but it was
    nearly a full week after the storm and they did not have
     the time or direction to come back for other streets
    leaving berms that damaged cars and endangered
    my neighbors who had to get out and help. If not
    been parked on the curb, one still has to shovel since
    plowing doesn't get close to the curb even on a 2nd pass.
    Why were only one or two trucks out the weekend before
    a holiday? Not everyone can, nor should have to afford,
    studded tires and all-wheel drive to get around town.  Not
    during the storm obviously, but why can't drivers come back
    and clear some streets so they are safer for months to come?
    There are always going to be challenges to snow removal based on weather, varied conditions across town, and resource constraints. However, this service, in particular, seems to have declined despite a "restructuring" of Public Works to include more admin, market-based pay increases, and utility rate increases well above inflation.  Further, we seemingly have a workforce of competent drivers on standby that can even be increased if needed and such need is acknowledged. Snow management in our winter climate is a good place find a positive approach to find a way to do things better. Something management, our commission, and our community can be proud of. 


    Matt E.

    Matt Elsaesser


    Helena, MT

    Priest River, ID. Go Spartans!
    A small town in North Idaho that plows snow from the sidewalks into the street and then plows all snow to the center of the street in the downtown and near schools. Contractors remove the snow later per a pre-arranged contract. Wouldn't something like this be better than having individuals with shovels or light-duty plows on ATV's fighting snow placed by a heavy vehicle or our bus system having to hire private parties to clear bus stops after city plows go by? 

    Thursday, December 14, 2017

    Thankful for Helena's Railroad Quiet Zone, the new Benton Crossing, and the fiscally responsible governance that afforded this investment in safety.

    Next Tuesday, December 19th, Helena's Railroad Quiet Zone will take effect thanks to safety improvements at rail crossings throughout Helena. Engineers will continue to sound train horns anytime as needed for safety, but the requirement to sound horns at every crossing will be eliminated. This investment is fiscally responsible, supports quality of life throughout Helena, and includes a major safety improvement with an accessible pedestrian crossing at Benton Avenue along Centennial Trail and near city parks, the Bill Roberts Golf Course, and the Sunhaven Neighborhood. (The medians at other crossing prevent persons from intentionally driving around the crossing arms.) 

    The new crossing at Benton Avenue included a flashing beacon activated by users. 
    The reduction in noise for residents near the railroad tracks is dramatic, as shown in the following images from a 2011 feasibility study by Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson linked here.
    Current situation not including the substation portions of town impacted by train horns Doppler Effect. Image from this report.  

    Noise from train horns in Helena after a quiet zone is implemented. Image from this report.

    While I personally have rarely lost sleep due to train horns, I heard from who do Helenans across town and across the political spectrum while I served on the City Commission. Whether or not one falls into this category or not, there is another reason to be proud of your City Commission for advancing this investment. Most of the funds for the safety improvements came from a tax settlement that would have otherwise been directed to fund a new parks building and offices at the Bill Roberts Golf Course to the tune of 3 million dollars according to Helena's Comprehensive Capital Improvement Fund (CCIP). The funds, outlined here, instead went to the purchase of a large existing warehouse that meets the parks department's needs for office and warehouse space at much less cost, is in a better location, and provides additional space for several other departmentsThese funds also provided the cash to match a federal grant to purchase two new fire trucks and started a new program to fund solars panels for Helena residents. 

    Going forward, there is more to do to improve the quiet zone. A wayside horn should be installed at National alongside additional safety improvements for pedestrian, both items the Railroad Tax Increment Finance District can explore. The City of Helena and our public works should approach the railroad about finding a more creative solution at the Roberts Crossing where a spur line prevents a more affordable median to prevent folks from driving around the crossing arms. A removable median for the spur and/or relocating the entrance to the yard might be a lower cost option than a direction horn. 

    Thanks to the actions by a majority of your city commissioners, many Helena residents will soon sleep better and families can now safely cross Benton Avenue near the tracks.  $1.89 million dollars that could have gone to just one new building instead was leveraged for safety improvements near rail crossings, new firetrucks, and smart use of an existing warehouse costing 40% less than a new building and serving many city departments.  

    Thank you to all the commissioners who have supported this endeavor, city staff that implemented the project, and the engineers and contractors who did such a nice job, especially with the new crossing at Benton! 


    Matt E

    Matthew Elsaesser

    Tuesday, September 20, 2016

    "Centennial Trail Celebration Ride" Tonight in Helena! Family friendly shuttle from Montana Wild at 5:30pm, bike ride starts at 6pm!

    Centennail West Now Open!
    Friends of Centennial Trail
    Pictures from Centennial Trail West Kick-Off October 16, 2015, more details here.

    A project of Prickly Pear Land Trust

    Helena, Montana

    Centennial Trail Celebration Ride

    For Immediate Release:

    Join other Helena-area bicyclists on September 20, and celebrate the paving of several

    segments of Helena’s Centennial Trail by cycling from its current beginning, immediately

    northwest of Walmart, to its present western terminus at Montana Wild. A ribbon-cutting, a

    delicious Big Dipper ice cream cone, and a free public showing of the film, Inspired to Ride,

    follows. Everyone is welcome.

    Here are the details:

    The Centennial Trail Celebration Ride date is Sept 20, beginning at 6 pm. Anyone able

    to cycle five miles at a moderate-to- relaxed pace (5-10 mph) is welcome to join the ride. The

    ride should take about an hour. The trail travels along car-free paths and city streets. In places

    the path is graveled; most road-, town-, or mountain-bike riders should be able to comfortably

    negotiate the (few) uncompleted rougher sections of the trail.

    Cyclists begin the ride at 6 pm at the corner of Billings and Blaine (NW of Walmart). For

    those who wish to leave a car at Montana Wild, the ride’s finish, the Trail Rider Shuttle, Bike
     Directions to Montana Wild
    Helena's bus and bike-trailer, will leave Montana Wild at 5:30 pm for the ride’s start-point near

    Walmart. There’s room for about 30 riders on the shuttle.

    After the ride, and after ice cream, cyclists are encouraged to stay and enjoy the

    exciting, inspirational movie, Inspired to Ride. This family-friendly, 1 hour 28 minute long feature

    film was released in 2015. It follows 45 cyclists competing in the first Trans Am Bike Race, a

    self-supported sprint beginning in Astoria (OR) and ending in Yorktown (PA). This free showing

    is in conjunction with the Helena Bicycle Club’s September meeting.


    The Friends of Centennial Trail is a project of Prickly Pear Land Trust. FOCT supports

    the design, construction, completion, and ongoing maintenance of Helena’s backbone non-

    motorized trail, an east ̶ west pathway for walkers, runners, and bicyclists of all ages and



    [Press Release from Friends of Centennial Trail; images from earlier post on this blog or taken by author]

    Tuesday, February 16, 2016

    Running to Serve Lewis & Clark County!


    I am pleased to announce that I am seeking the opportunity to serve our greater community as a Lewis and Clark County Commissioner. I will be filing as a Democrat and formally launching my campaign in the coming weeks.

    Most of all, I look forward to visiting with residents from all of Lewis and Clark County to hear your ideas and concerns during the campaign. Some critical issues for our County include ensuring continued Payment(s) in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) for public lands, maintaining infrastructure, and responsibly addressing the challenges and opportunities of growth. I look forward to supporting continued improvements to mental health and pretrial services to help address safety and overcrowding at the jail.

    Please fill out this form or visit the campaign site at MattE4LCC.com to receive further updates or to share your questions and comments. 

    Thank you very much!


    Matt E

    Matthew Elsaesser
    Helena, MT

    Tuesday, December 1, 2015

    Upcoming Meetings: Transportation Coordination Committee and Admin Wednesday, City/County Thursday, & Upcoming Monday Meetings


    Here are some of the upcoming meeting for the City of Helena Commission. I will add more details later this week. Please contact the City Clerks Office at 447-8410 for details. Also, please consider serving on some of the advisory boards listed below, applications due Thursday!


    - Matt E

    City Commission Advisory Board Positions Open!

    Deadline: 4:00 pm, Thursday, December 3, 2015

    The City of Helena has openings on the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Compliance Committee (3 openings), City-County Planning Board (2 openings), Lewis & Clark/City Library Board (1 opening), Helena Public Art Committee (3 openings), and Zoning Commission (1 opening). 

    TCC, City Admin, and Audit Committee Meetings Wednesday:

    City and County Meeting Thursday:

    Upcoming Agenda's for Monday Meetings (Dec 7th & Dec 14) posted here at the following link once available:

    Wednesday, November 4, 2015

    Thanks to Commission Candidates! Update from Monday's City Commission Meeting, Upcoming Meetings


    I'd like to thank and congratulate all of the candidates who ran for the Helena City Commission in this years election! Each brought forth new ideas. All demonstrated that they were ready and would being willing to serve our community!  
    The Helena City Commission had a very productive meeting this Monday. This included advancing a railroad quiet zone, approving a curbside recycling agreement, a bid award for a major "Westside" sewer project, allowing capital projects is the streets utility, and the first of two votes to eliminate the transfer station policy charging permit holders for use of their public facility. Details follow below. 

    The Helena City Commission will join East Helena and the Lewis & Clark County Commission in meeting with the School Board and School District One this Thursday at 1pm at the Montana School Board Offices at 863 Great Northern Boulevard. I hope to see the City work with the School District on an ongoing basis to reduce infrastructure costs and implement Helena's Growth Policy as was outlined here in the Helena Independent Record. One important area is transportation.  For example, exploring expansion of the Livingston and Montana Intersection at the Helena High parking lot could better address safety, congestion and local access decades ahead of restructuring "Malfunction Junction" at a much lower cost (and without closing Helena Avenue!). Such projects are very complicated and should not be conditioned on potential school bond elections year to year.   

    The Transportation Coordination Committee has a very important meeting next Tuesday (November 10th) at 3pm at the City-County Building to prioritize secondary highway funds in the Helena area. This body should formally allocate the current reserve of these funds and budget through at least fiscal year 2017 to get important safety projects moving. This post has more details and will be updated later this week. 
    • City of Helena priorities for this fund include safety and traffic improvements to Benton and Henderson between Custer and Euclid as well as re-construction of section of 6th and 11th.
    • The City explored using urban funds for the South Helena Gateway project, but will instead use available general funds due to the low cost of the project, community concerns raised over safety in the area, and staff capacity to advance the project in house.  

    Please let me know if you have any comments or questions. 

    Thank you very much, it is an honor to serve!


    Matt E

    Matthew Elsaesser, Commissioner
    City of Helena, Montana, USA
    406.431.0815 / 59624-321

    Full agenda and materials for Monday's meeting linked here,  highlights include the following:
    • Railroad Quiet Zone: The advancement of an engineering design and construction management contract to establish Helena's railroad quiet zone. A quiet zone will improve safety at crossing and thereby eliminate the requirement that railroad engineers sound their horns at every crossing. Note:  Engineers will still be allowed to sounds train horns as needed for safety. Most improvements will be as simple as installing medians. The directional horns at National will be louder at the crossing, but not travel across town as they do now due to the Doppler Effect and approach. The City and MRL should work together to install a removable median at Roberts.  [A previous Helena quiet zone study is linked here
      • The contract agreement passed 4-1. Four residents spoke in favor of the measure as important to their ability to sleep and quality of life. One resident opposed.
    • Curbside Recycling Agreement: A curbside recycling agreement between the City of Helena and Helena Recycling which I write about hereNote: Monday's agreement, which may be renewed through 2022, needs to be amended to ensure once a month collection is allowed within one year. This provision was advanced during the negotiation process over the last few months, but is not yet included or referenced in Monday's materials. I discuss the importance of this option here, mainly that one a month collection will be more affordable and green for some residents.
      • Three amendments were passed to allow and encourage the establishment of a once a month recycling collection option and cost savings after 1000 customers. No specific price or timeline was set for the once a month option, but provisions were added to require affirmative commission approval if such an option is not established within two years.
    • Transfer Station Trip Policy: The first of two votes to rescind the misguided Transfer Station policy to charge permit holding residents for using the transfer station on a per trip basis. More details regarding this policy here.Note: The policy initially proposed to the city commission included ZERO free trips for tax paying residents. The commissions alternative proposal ensured 30 free visits, allows for diversion of heavy construction material that otherwise can damage equipment, creates an annual House Hazardous Waste collection event, and covers the cost of tire and electronics recycling for permit holders. 
      • First passage was approved 5-0 as part of the consent agenda.
      • Note: This policy casts further doubts on the validity of the "Solid Waste System Efficiency Study," which also recommended suspending compost operations at the transfer station and landfill. When the commission instead amended the budget to recognize tipping fee revenue for the program, it was discovered that this program actually saves money for tax payers and our public solid waste and recycling system.
    • Modification of the City's Street Utility Assessment to allow for the reconstruction of roads and other capital projects. Note:  This is a very important provision for the maintenance and improved safety of Helena's streets. It includes provisions for transparency in city capital projects. 
        • Final passage of the modification to this ordinance passed 5-0.  This decision enables to use of reserve funds for trail maintenance, pedestrian safety, reconstruction of local roadways, and at least $150,000 set aside for safety features around rail intersections that also help establish a railroad quiet zone.
    • ALSO:
      • Westside Infrastructure & Annexations: 
        • A $300,000+ bid was awarded to install sewer lines that will connect seven properties with failing septic systems on Cannon Street in Helena's "Westside." The project will include running sewer pipes to the property lines of twenty-three properties total. A reimbursement arrangement for properties connecting to the sewer main will be established at an upcoming meeting. 
        • Note: Projects of this scale and a timeline that allows residents to connect as needed or by their choice is a more appropriate approach for infrastructure in the Westside. Most residents in this area already pay for City fire protection, are close to existing schools, and are not driving establish addition water and sewer systems that compete with Helena for public funds. The City should be more focused to the North and other areas with in the Urban Services Area Boundary outlined by the Growth Policy to prevent a future situations similar to the Westside. [New Zoning designations are also needed and would help the City meet its' growth policy goals.]