The recommendation by City of Dubuque staff to move toward automated trash collection — at a cost of $1.9 million — raises a number of questions and demands further study.
On the advice of a consultant hired to review the performance and rates of the city’s garbage and recycling collection services, the city plans to streamline its pay-as-you-throw fee schedule and add automated trash collection.
While the automated collection vehicles and accompanying receptacles would cost nearly $2 million, the vehicles only require one person instead of two. Public Works Director John Klostermann said the move would eliminate the need to add staff as the city grows. We should hope so. It seems curious that it wouldn’t allow for a reduction in staff, and therefore savings, but that’s not what’s in the plans. And that’s just one of the questions.
Paul Schultz, former manager of the city’s garbage and recycling services, doesn’t think the automated trucks are a good fit for some of Dubuque’s narrow streets, alleyways and hilly, winding terrain. City officials acknowledge the trucks won’t work everywhere. Yet all residents would see their trash fees increase, and all residents would be forced to move to a city-provided 48 gallon trash cart — even if they aren’t filling a 35 gallon can now.
City officials initially indicated the solid waste collection fee would jump 10.6%, but have since revised the increase to 7.68%. In discussing the increase, City Manager Mike Van Milligen noted, “That’s the balancing act we do to meet council goals and priorities to issue less debt each year,” suggesting the city had to decide between a bigger rate hike to pay for the change, or a smaller rate increase along with issuing debt.
There’s an element missing in Van Milligen’s quandary, however. Raising taxes and issuing debt are not the lone options. When there is something city officials want or need to spend money on, they should seek other areas to decrease spending. Just like businesses and average citizens do.
City solid waste collection is an enterprise fund that must be self-supported through fees and other revenue, and does not receive tax dollars from the city’s general fund. But that arrangement doesn’t preclude the city from cutting spending elsewhere to offset the increase.
Further, if this investment in automation is meant to save money over time, will the increase to fees only be temporary? Hardly. Solid waste officials say it won’t necessarily stave off further increases down the road.
At the moment, it sounds like a plan that would cost millions upfront with little opportunity to recoup the money. It would require new carts and higher fees for citizens, and it likely wouldn’t even work everywhere. City staffers see this as a good move for the city over the long haul, but they will need to do a better job explaining how and why.