Portsmouth Council and residents talk trash — again

Town to explore costs of a hybrid program that would keep transfer station open while also offering curbside to all

By Jim McGaw
Posted 10/12/22

PORTSMOUTH — Emphasizing it was merely gathering information for future decision-making, the Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to direct staff to develop a request for proposals (RFP) for …

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Portsmouth Council and residents talk trash — again

Town to explore costs of a hybrid program that would keep transfer station open while also offering curbside to all


PORTSMOUTH — Emphasizing it was merely gathering information for future decision-making, the Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to direct staff to develop a request for proposals (RFP) for a “hybrid” program that would keep the transfer station open for diversionary items while also offering curbside pickup for all. 

Under the RFP, this program would also do away with the pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) bags that are now required at the facility.

“This is an RFP; we’re not going in this direction today,” council member Keith Hamilton assured residents who packed the Council Chambers.

Because the current contract to operate the Hedly Street facility expires on June 30, 2023, Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. had been tasked by the council to evaluate the costs of a curbside collection program versus the operation of the transfer station.

The town has about 7,600 households and sells less than 2,300 transfer station stickers — a number that keeps dropping by about 100 each year, according to Rainer. The current cost of a regular sticker is $210 annually per vehicle, plus the expense of the PAYT bags. The majority of residents choose to pay for private curbside collection.

The town posted an RFP for curbside collection in August and closed the bidding on Sept. 16. Three companies — MEGA Waste Disposal, Republic, and Waste Management Disposal — offered bids on the package, which also included the cost of a six-month transfer station sticker from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2023 to bring the operations of the transfer station back in line with the town’s fiscal year budget instead of a calendar year budget. The RFP was based on 4,000 households participating, said Public Works Director Brian Woodhead, who presented the numbers.

Republic’s bid of $418,200 for refuse, $418,200 for recycling, and $318,400 for yard waste annually — cart costs not included — was the lowest of the three.

“Right now, it’s about the same price — curbside or transfer station,” said Rainer.

Residents: Keep it open

The council took no action on the bids, however, and the idea of exploring the costs of a hybrid solution didn’t come up until later in the meeting. Despite council members vowing they were only fact-finding in order to make sound decisions in the future — “There is no move to shut down the transfer station; we’re comparing the costs,” said Rainer — about a dozen residents made their feelings known anyway: They want the transfer station to remain open, no matter what.

“The people who want (curbside) have already got it,” said David Reise. “You’re taking away our choice, and the other people have already made their choice.”

Reise said the transfer station provides residents with more convenience and flexibility by letting them dispose of many different items “all in one place.” You can dispose of metal and other items there, but you’d have to pay extra for a curbside collector to pick those up, he said.

“You can’t say it’s just the cost of curbside, because you’re not getting all the services,” he said. “Once the transfer station is gone, you’ll never get it back, because the infrastructure for it will be gone.”

Larry Fitzmorris, president of the taxpayer watchdog group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, said he didn’t understand why the town would even consider closing the transfer station. “I don’t know why we’re closing this place; there’s lots of people who use it,” Fitzmorris said. “We have a system that appears to be stable in cost when you look at the budget numbers. The transfer station works really well, at least in my experience.”

Added Lawrence Silvia, who’s lived in town for 81 years, “We’ve always had services, and I think a dump or a transfer station should be one of the services.”

Philip Driscoll said the town hasn’t considered other issues with curbside collection, including wild animals and elderly residents who may find it difficult to roll the containers to the curb every week, especially in inclement weather. (Woodhead replied that the RFP included door-to-curb collection for 75 elderly residents.)

Driscoll also said the town doesn’t know the cost of disposing bulk items if it went with curbside as the only option. “You have not done your homework,” he said.

Another resident, Kyle Fenton, said the transfer station allows residents to dump multiple items on multiple days. “What you’re proposing here doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “If you remove the transfer station, I think you’ll be paying more and you’ll have citizens that will think of you less.”

Joe Noberini also urged the council to always keep the transfer station open. “We have a choice right now to do curbside, or bring it up here. You said there’s no difference in cost? Leave it as is,” he said.

Jim Moore said curbside works for some residents, but not for others. “About 40 percent of the people in town find the transfer station important and vital,” he said.

Why not do both?

Thomas Grieb said the council should recognize a theme in residents’ comments. 

“Convenience is huge to a lot of people, depending on their lifestyle. The choice between curbside and the transfer station is what needs to be preserved,” said Grieb, who suggested the town explore a hybrid model of keeping the transfer station open while also offering town-wide curbside collection. Getting rid of the transfer station, he said, “takes away any competition and/or a benchmark” and without that, contractors will up their prices.

“There’s a lot of logical reasons to keep both. We have both now,” Grieb said.

A consultant for the town’s trash operations who appeared online also said the “optimum system” would be a hybrid program that keeps the transfer station for bulky waste and other diversional items on certain days, coupled with a curbside program. Finding out how many people would commit themselves to curbside is key in determining the financial feasibility of a hybrid program, he added.

Rainer said while there’s been no interest from bidders to provide a curbside service and also run the transfer station as is, the town has not yet asked them whether they’d be interested in a hybrid program.

In addition to voting unanimously to develop an RFP for the hybrid solution without PAYT bags, the council also voted 5-1 to request a one-year extension on the transfer station contract. Council member Andrew Kelly voted against the motion.

Back in tax base?

Council members also discussed the possibility of putting the transfer station — and any other methods of trash collection — back into the tax base. The transfer station was in the tax base until 2006, Rainer said. It's a topic that's been debated before.

“I think 100 percent this should be in our taxes. It’s a town service,” said council member Daniela Abbott. 

Added Kelly, “If we’re gonna go curbside, we need to get it into the tax base, because that will guarantee participation.”

The council has toyed with the idea of closing down the transfer station before. During a raucous meeting in 2017 that featured nearly three hours of contentious debate, the council voted 5-2 to forgo curbside pickup and let residents with dump stickers keep depositing their solid waste and recyclables at the transfer station. 

The price of an annual sticker rose sharply, however, while more residents chose to go with a curbside program after a neighborhood collective negotiated a lesser bid with contractors.

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