Every day may soon be trash day at Lawrence City Hall.
When voters go to the polls on April 5, they’ll be choosing the set of city commissioners that will consider the most sweeping set of changes to the city’s trash service in decades.
City commissioners began taking a hard look at the city’s trash service in 2009 after the division posted a $513,000 loss the year before. The losses have slowed — in fact, in 2010 the division took in about $160,000 more in revenue than it spent — but commissioners aren’t convinced that’s sustainable.
Concerns are mounting that many of the city’s trash trucks soon will need to be replaced at a price of more than $300,000 each. And the city’s favorable landfill contract — it had held tipping fees steady since 1993 — has expired and been replaced with a contract that guarantees tipping fee increases on an annual basis.
A host of ideas are being studied for the trash system. They include privatizing the service, meaning the city no longer would operate the system but rather would contract with a private company. That idea has set off alarm bells among the division’s approximately 100 employees.
Other ideas have included increased automation of trash trucks, perhaps reducing the number of employees needed for each truck. But automation also could require residents to use specialized trash carts instead of standard bags and cans.
The standardized carts also could open the door to a “volume-based” pricing system that has been advocated by environmentalists who believe it is unfair that people who recycle large amounts of their trash pay the same monthly fee as those who do not.
Here’s what the five candidates running for three spots on the City Commission have to say about the trash issue and other service-related issues at City Hall.
Alstrom, a Lawrence architect, has taken the hardest line against privatizing the city’s trash service.
He said turning the service over to a private company would create too many questions about the cost and quality of the service in the future.
Alstrom also is the most reluctant of the candidates to endorse the idea of the city starting a curbside recycling program. He likes the current system run by private operators.
“I don’t want to expand it into a city service,” Alstrom said. “We have enough things to manage right now.”
He said he is open to the idea of making the trash system more automated, and changing the pricing system to one that takes into account how much trash a person sets out.
On other issues, Alstrom:
• Likes the idea of building a West Lawrence recreation center. He said he supports the idea of taking the money that the city had been spending to pay off the Indoor Aquatic Center — which is now paid for — and using it to fund a bond for a new recreation center.
• Would like to look for other sources of revenue to maintain city streets so that an infrastructure sales tax approved in 2008 could eventually be repealed.
• When asked whether he could envision any projects that would require voters to approve a tax increase, said he would like the city to discuss buying the Alvamar golf complex that is up for sale. He said he thought the city could buy the property for a reasonable price and use it to help improve its image as a retirement destination.
Carter, a Lawrence financial adviser, said he is skeptical that privatizing the city’s trash service would make sense, but said he was willing to review it.
“But I feel pretty strongly that it would be a tough one for me to swallow,” Carter said.
Carter, though, believes the city is behind the times on its curbside recycling services, especially considering that Lawrence wants to have a reputation as an environmentally friendly community. Carter said that he would consider adding curbside recycling to city services, but has concerns about hurting the private companies providing the service.
“I think if we could offer it as part of the city’s service, the rate of recycling in this town would just go through the roof,” Carter said.
Carter also said he was open to reviewing a change in the city’s pricing system for trash to give people a greater incentive to recycle.
On other issues, Carter:
• Understands the need but is uncertain that now is the right time financially to move forward with a new West Lawrence recreation center. He said he would want to study whether there are other core services in greater need of funding before committing to move forward on a recreation center.
• Believes the city’s transit service will continue to be perceived as a high-cost-per-rider system until the city gets serious about allowing developments that feature more density and transit-oriented designs.
• Said voters may need to be asked to approve funding for more police department resources. In particular, he said a new department headquarters that would allow the force to no longer be split between two locations needs to be studied.
Dever — an owner of a Lawrence-based environmental consulting firm, and the lone incumbent in the race — said he believes it is important to ask tough questions about the city’s trash service, but said he doesn’t necessarily believe the service must be privatized.
“What I really want is a plan for the service,” Dever said.
He said he wants to look at buying trucks that would allow for more automation and that would allow crews to pick up trash and curbside recycling all in one trip. He also said he wants to look at changing the city’s pricing system for trash service because he’s not sure the flat rate is fair to everybody.
On other issues, Dever:
• Believes any new West Lawrence recreation center will need to be part of a public-private partnership. Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self’s foundation has expressed interest in funding a wellness center in the community.
• Said voters could be asked to approve an economic development fund that would give the community more flexibility in offering incentives and making improvements to bring new companies and jobs to the city.
• Is more open to the idea of creating a rental registration program for older apartments than he previously has been, but said he still has concerns about the city’s ability to enforce existing regulations.
Machell, a human resources director for an Overland Park company, said it is “fiscally responsible” to at least review privatization of the trash service. But he said he has concerns about losing control over the service quality and pricing.
“Plus, I’m concerned about what happens to the city workers,” Machell said. “How we treat city employees in this instance will have implications about how the rest of our employees deal with us.”
Machell said he wants to keep all options open regarding curbside recycling, increased automation and new pricing systems.
“This is nearly an $11 million department and we have to get it right,” Machell said.
On other issues, Machell:
• Said he is interested in using freed-up sales tax dollars, combined with private donations, to build a West Lawrence recreation center.
• Believes the city may need to look at funding a new police services building at some point to consolidate the police department.
• Is not in favor of adding a rental registration program for older apartments. He said the complaint-based system is adequate, and that he would rather spend additional money on adding police officers to address other neighborhood concerns.
Schumm — a downtown restaurant owner and former Lawrence mayor — said he doubts that city residents would support privatizing the city’s trash service.
“As I’m going door-to-door, it seems people are very happy with the service,” Schumm said. “I think they are reluctant to even suggest a change.”
Schumm also said he is hesitant to consider a city-operated curbside recycling program, but wouldn’t entirely rule it out.
“I’m just very reluctant to take away somebody’s job and business,” Schumm said of the potential impact a city program would have on private operators.
Schumm said he is open to studying greater automation of the system. But if it required reducing city staff, he would want to do so through attrition rather than layoffs.
On other issues, Schumm:
• Said he doesn’t believe the city’s budget would allow the city to move forward on a new West Lawrence recreation center during the next one to two years.
• Said he can think of no projects or service enhancements that he would propose that would require voters to support a property or sales tax increase. “Not a single thing,” he said.
• Believes the city has made significant improvements to its transit system following the 2008 sales tax vote. He said the city needs to position itself to take advantage of what could be a dramatic increase in ridership due to higher gasoline prices.