Spencer trash service may get dumped

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 7, 2011

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — An era may come to an end in Spencer as leaders consider dropping backyard garbage service to help close a $235,000 budget gap.
When Jeff Bumgarner became public works director in 2009, he said he was told Spencer was the last town west of Interstate 95 that still sent trash collectors into people’s backyards to empty their garbage cans.
That may have been an exaggeration, Bumgarner said, but it shows how proud Spencer has been to provide backyard garbage pickup to residents.
However, the tradition will go the way of the milkman delivering glass bottles to a front porch if aldermen vote to end the service and save an estimated $40,000 to $45,000 a year by switching to curbside trash collection.
Several other perks of living in Spencer — like free use of ballfields and picnic shelters — already have been cut as leaders struggle to make ends meet for the upcoming fiscal year, the leanest in decades.
The town’s tax base will fall 8 percent, from $211 million to $194 million. Debt service on the renovated library will cost $52,880.
Expenses are up, and revenue is down. The town lost $26,000 when the state decided to cancel a security contract between the Spencer Police Department and the N.C. Transportation Museum.
The town would have to increase its 60-cent tax rate to 65.6 cents per $100 valuation to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue. Even then, the town would still face a deficit of $131,761. Aldermen have not set a tax rate.
Like it or not, things in Spencer are about to change.
The town has long been top-heavy in staff and resources dedicated to providing small-town services people don’t find in larger cities, Town Manager Larry Smith said.
“The town has an identity. We’ve carved out a niche,” Smith said. “Backyard pickup is a perfect example.”
Per capita, the town probably has more employees than most its size, he said. Spencer has 36 fulltime workers and a population of 3,355.
In tough budget times, aldermen must decide how many of Spencer’s unique services the town will retain, and at what cost.
Ever since the town began collecting garbage, employees have ventured into residents’ backyards to empty metal trash cans, sometimes walking the length of a football field round-trip.
Trash collector James Hahn wore a pedometer last week and logged 7.5 miles in one day.
He jokes the job keeps him slim.
Switching to curbside pickup — where residents roll 95-gallon garbage carts to the street once a week — would save time, fuel and manpower.
“It would be a whole lot easier,” Hahn said. “As long as we get to keep our jobs.”
With curbside pickup, the town would go from four days of garbage service to three days and from three trash collectors to two.
But Bumgarner and Smith don’t plan on laying off anyone.
One trash collector has been on the job for 31 years. When he retires, the town would not fill the position, they said.
Curbside collection would prevent employees from coming into contact with dogs and other hazards, including needles, as they pull bags from metal cans, Bumgarner said.
The town’s garbage truck already has a hydraulic lift.
The truck would no longer maneuver through alleys, so the town would save on maintenance costs for both the truck and alleyways, Bumgarner said.
“There are so many pros, I can’t believe the town hasn’t went to it already,” he said. “They’ve talked about it 100 times in the past 30 years.”
Between 10 percent and 15 percent of residents already roll an approved cart to the curb because they don’t want people in their backyard.
“It’s a privacy issue for some people,” Bumgarner said.
Under the current proposal, the town would buy 1,200 industrial-grade carts for $52 each. The town would charge residents $3 per month on their water bill for 18 months to cover the cost.
Residents who already have an approved cart or want to buy their own would be reimbursed. People who leave carts at the curb after 24 hours would face a fine.
While details are still under discussion, Bumgarner said he will ease the transition to curbside.
“We will knock on every door in town and make sure everyone understands,” he said.
He even offered to personally roll back the cart for a resident who complained Tuesday that she and her husband are often away from home and don’t want to incur a fine.
“We want to provide the service you need at a cost the town can afford,” Bumgarner told her.
Backyard pickup costs about $230,979 a year. Bumgarner’s rough estimate for curbside service — $188,308 — would save about $42,000.
Residents pay $15 per month for garbage, leaf and limb pickup. The town heavily subsidizes the program, he said.
Even with curbside pickup, $15 a month won’t cover the cost, he said.
To balance the budget, the town may have to dip into its $1.5 million fund balance next year. After that, officials hope new fees and service cuts will close the budget gap.
Aldermen are weighing every option to save taxpayers money and maintain a strong fund balance, Alderman Reid Walters said.
Curbside collection will save hundreds of thousands of dollars within the first few years, he said.
“Honestly, I do not want to see the current service go, however fiscally and for the future stability of the town, this modification is needed,” Walters said.
Keeping garbage collection in-house will save two public utility jobs and allow the town to maintain control of the service, he said.
Aldermen cast a number of unanimous votes on cost-cutting measures at a cordial budget workshop last week, Alderman Jeff Morris said.
The board shares “a common concern over the need to make tough decisions during the leanest year the town has experienced in recent history,” Morris said.
Aldermen will discuss the budget again May 10 and hold a public hearing in May or June, when residents can discuss backyard garbage pickup and other town services.
Mayor Jody Everhart has rolled his garbage can to the curb for years.
“Once the people get used to it, it won’t be that bad for them,” he said.

Spencer aldermen cut their own salaries by 40 percent and nearly cut them entirely in the face of a large budget deficit.
Alderman Delaine Fowler suggested cutting the salaries of elected officials by 40 percent. With support from aldermen Jeff Morris and Tracy Aitken, the motion passed 3-2.
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Benfield and Alderman Reid Walters voted no.
Walters said the aldermen should eliminate their salaries completely, but only Fowler supported the idea.
Alderman David Smith did not attend the budget workshop.
With the 40 percent cut, next year aldermen will earn $1,200 and the mayor will earn $2,400.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.