- APD lawsuit settled
- Council urges restraint in cutting state education budget
- Public on budget: No comment
Raising Asheville’s residential recycling charge might help plug the city’s budgetary hole in the short term, but some Council members say it’s a step in the wrong direction if the goal is to reduce how much trash ends up in the county landfill.
“At this point, in 2009, curbside recycling is a basic city service, and it should be part of what people get,” Council member Brownie Newman declared during the June 9 session.
The discussion came amid Council’s consideration of several agenda items related to solid waste, including the Metropolitan Sewerage District’s revised Master Plan (which, under state law, must be updated every three years).
According to that report, both Asheville and Buncombe County continue to dramatically exceed the state’s landfill-waste target.
In 1991, the General Assembly amended the 1989 North Carolina Solid Waste Management Act to call for a 40 percent reduction in landfill waste statewide by 2001. But that goal was never met, and Buncombe County, like the rest of the state, continues to increase the amount of trash that goes into the ground. In 2008, Buncombe County processed 331,932 tons of trash—nearly 19,000 tons more than the year before, and 62 percent above the 1989 base line. Countywide, per capita annual trash disposal hovers in the 1.39 to 1.54 ton range, the report notes.
That’s because Asheville residents can throw stuff away for free but have to pay a fee to recycle, Newman maintained. (In fact, city residents have to pay the fee regardless of whether or not they recycle. And according to Public Works Director Mark Combs, 80 percent of city households are recycling.)
Council member Robin Cape agreed, saying the process should be reversed, with people paying for the amount of trash that’s actually picked up each week. In what was initially to be essentially a financial discussion, Cape outlined how she sees trash pickup in the future.
“We put [scales] on the side of the trucks that puts it into a computer, sifts it out and says this is what you threw away this month,” she said. “And let people recycle for free. And that would encourage them to shift how they react to their trash.”
The current system, argued Cape, makes it too easy to throw things away. “We encourage throwaway by the size of our trash cans versus the size of our recycling bins,” she said, noting that meanwhile, the charge for using the landfill continues to rise.
Cape conceded that the idea of charging for garbage could be a hard pitch—particularly where annexation is concerned. “It’s a difficult conversation to have, but if we’re going to put a dent in recycling and trash, we need to be willing to have this conversation,” she asserted. “That’s how you change: make it not free to throw things away.”
Council member Bill Russell disputed that claim, saying that recycling is a cultural issue that will change when people choose to change their behavior.
“The [problem is] we’re a throwaway society,” he said. “We’ll get there in 20 or 30 or 40 years.”
(For the record, Mayor Terry Bellamy noted that throwing away garbage is not free: It’s paid for by property-tax revenues.)
Combs also weighed in, saying that while staff hasn’t seriously examined the idea of charging per pound of garbage, the obvious logistical implications—such as administrative and capital expenses, as well as customers disputing their bills—suggest that it would cost far more than the $3.4 million the city now spends on solid waste.
And proposed state legislation, noted Bellamy, would make recycling mandatory, so the city should begin considering what new enforcement measures it will need if that bill passes.
Meanwhile, there remains the city’s budget, which staff has twisted and teased to get rid of a multimillion-dollar shortfall. The whole point of increasing the recycling fee was to eliminate the city’s subsidy and make the program self-sustaining. A few months back, Council members roughly doubled the monthly fee, from $1.35 to $2.63, to reflect the city’s actual cost. But the increase hadn’t taken effect yet, and meanwhile, the new contract with Curbside Management (which was also approved june 9) will tack an additional 32 cents onto each household’s monthly cost. (Curbside’s price of $73,542 per month was nearly $50,000 below the next-lowest bid.)
And with the city already grappling with a deficit, spending more to revamp the entire recycling system just doesn’t make sense, asserted Vice Mayor Jan Davis.
“It’s a big, complex, expensive project,” he noted, arguing that it would make more sense to put that energy into educational campaigns on the city’s cable channel and Web site. “This is just not the right time to start a whole new program.”
Council member Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, noted that most city residents are also scrambling to make ends meet—and the new fee will make it even harder.
“It is a dramatic increase: It is over double,” said Mumpower. “[This] is a time for us to give consideration to incremental action,” he said, arguing for phasing in the increase. He also agreed with Newman that recycling pickup should be folded into general city services.
Newman said he would support the short-term increase provided that the entire fee is phased out over the next four years. Even at Curbside Management’s current rate, that would eventually cost the city $882,504 a year, and Russell said he wanted to see more information before voting on such a move.
“I just want to go on the record and say it won’t become free: It will be paid out of the general balance,” he emphasized.
Nonetheless, the motion to increase the fee but phase it out altogether within four years was approved 6-1 with only Mumpower opposed.
City settles lawsuit with burn victim
In other business, City Council unanimously approved a $150,000 budget amendment to settle a lawsuit stemming from a 2006 Asheville Police Department raid on an alleged crack house.
The lawsuit was filed by Troy Wyatt, who claims he was burned by a “flash-bang” device used in the raid and that he was falsely arrested.
The settlement totals $300,000, but anything above $150,000 requires Council approval.
The incident has changed the way the APD deploys such devices, Chief Bill Hogan told Xpress before the meeting. “If we’ve been spotted, as we were in this case, the distraction device may be re-pinned, or we will discharge it in the yard,” he said, explaining that Wyatt’s burns resulted from the officers’ being spotted and Wyatt’s running back into the house. “We will not deploy it if we have been spotted.”
Nonetheless, said Hogan, the device—a kind of grenade that creates a loud report and bright light—remains an important tool for police that’s used to distract people in a building without typically harming them.
“Take in mind this is the most dangerous thing we can do, this kind of entry. It’s high-risk,” Hogan emphasized. “We’ve had people stunned or distracted literally with guns right at their hands, and so it’s a very effective tool. And like I said, the unfortunate thing is that this man was injured. This is the first time we’ve had an accident of this nature.”
Hands off our teachers
On the heels of community outcry over potential state budget cuts that could result in 80 teachers in Buncombe County being laid off, City Council approved a resolution urging state legislators to minimize cuts in public education funding.
The resolution was not listed on the meeting agenda but was introduced by Bellamy. The Buncombe County Board of Education approved a similar resolution the previous week, and a June 8 rally at Enka High School brought out a massive crowd of teachers and their supporters. (See “Teachers Making Waves” elsewhere in this issue).
Council members were also set to hear public comment on the city’s proposed $135 million budget, which comes up for a vote June 23, but no one showed up to speak.