Saturday, May 23, 2020

Why do we pay for a transfer station that closed on the weekend?

Two weekends ago at the City of Helena Transfer Station on Saturday.
Helena and Helena Valley residents hauling yard waste, taking out their trash, or recycling at the City of Helena Transfer Station have faced a crowded scene these last three weekends. Folks are right to be courteous to the staff on the ground doing an amazing, essential job of moving folks through. They should wonder why their public collection facility is closing on Sunday when the weekends are the busiest time for residents to use the facility. 

The weekend closure highlights an underlining flaw in how our public "solid waste system" is run that leads to less service. The overarching priority is to maximize trash to the landfill while maximizing tax revenue from residents into the public "enterprise" funds. The funds, which include the City Transfer Station, City Commercial Collection Service, and Lewis & Clark County Landfill are run to make public visits to the facility "more efficiency" by reducing trips (residential use) and increasing "tonnage" per trip (commercial use). Additional sources of trash are sought for revenue.  

The recent Sunday closure is apparently to address risks posed to residents as they get closer to this trash climbing the tipping floor walls per COVID 19 (city budget discussion).  The *proximity to trash is a potential vector disease should, however, should be avoided in the best of times. Fortunately, this situation can be avoided: 

  • The City Transfer Station can send trash to the private landfill on Sunday. The private company was open to this in the past as a trash exchange could help both parties operate more efficiently, save fuel, and reduce costs while avoiding the weekend service issues.
  • Direct City Residential and Commercial Garbage trucks directly to the Lewis and Clark County Landfill, as least on Friday and Saturday so they don't fill up the pit ahead of residents. As the 2014 "Efficiency Study of [the] Solid Waste System" noted, this would have immense cost savings to the entire collection system (**nearly $2,700 per week!). **This could also allow the second bay to be open for social distancing on the weekend.  

However, both of these options go against business as is usual for our public collection system seeking to outcompete a private company for trash. Several years ago, the same contradiction came to light as the City and County sought to drastically limit the use of the Transfer Station by residents--less than a dozen trips per year. Residents rightly raised heck about this. That tonnage goal policy had to be abandoned by the city and county commissioners who'd supported it after residents realized they could no longer use the facility their taxes pay for. The current Sunday closure stems from the same rationale to pursue handling more trash rather than service to residents. This reduction in service should be abandoned.

The city and county commissions can and should immediately act to prioritize safety and convenience residents by opening the Transfer Station on Sunday. While they are at it, the should reprioritize the related "solid waste system" budgets to address the conflicts that caused this weekend mess in the first place. 

- ME

Three weekends ago on Saturday. 
Last Saturday.
Recent Saturday Spring 2020Recent Saturday Spring 2020

p.s. Kudos to the new City Commissioners trying to address this very issue during the budget process, the only place to seriously address it, as the City is slated to spend $1,350,000 for an extra shop for Residential Garbage trucks (the "enterprise" fleet gets to keep the current digs). 

p.s.2. This conflicted goal of more trash while residents are paying for a generally fixed and often underutilized service has other peculiar effects.  Waste reduction, recycling, and compost options are at odds with tonnage over the transfer station and landfill scales. For example, green waste separated by residents at the transfer station brings in the full per ton rate for the Transfer Station. However, the separate "recycling fund" from the tax assessments pays to process the material, which is no longer composted. Green waste was historically composted with the City Waste Water sewage sludge to create soil. Now both items are buried with tipping fees paid to the enterprise funds.

p.s..3. As I summarize here, our community was promised a more responsive collection system that would focus on service to residents, including recycling and related diversion efforts. It is time to realize this promise and prioritize giving residents the services they are paying for on the days they'd use them.

*Since the Lewis & Clark County Landfill is closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the trash from residents thrown from the north bay (image left) and garbage trucks on the right, builds up. Either of the alternatives mentioned would alleviate or eliminate this situation during the weekend and allow for use of the second bay for social distancing and convenience. 

A recent image from the recently built $1,600,000 expansion
 on a day trash has not yet reached the platform used by residents.

**From the 2014 Solid Waste System Efficiency Study (August 22nd Version; de facto final draft)