Transfer station fans trash-talk Portsmouth council at meeting

Town to explore town-wide curbside, with bulky waste collection at transfer station

By Jim McGaw
Posted 10/25/23

Town Council members want it made clear that they have made no decision to close the transfer station, which will remain open until at least June 30, 2025 when the current operators’ contract with the town expires.

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Transfer station fans trash-talk Portsmouth council at meeting

Town to explore town-wide curbside, with bulky waste collection at transfer station


PORTSMOUTH — First and foremost, Town Council members want this to be made abundantly clear: They have made no decision to close the transfer station, which will remain open until at least June 30, 2025 when the current operators’ contract with the town expires.

Until then, however, the town will explore the possibility of a future town-wide curbside collection program, while keeping the transfer station open only for the deposit of bulky waste or diversion items. 

Why? Officials say far fewer residents use the transfer station (about 2,280 households compared to about 4,450 using private haulers), which operates under an enterprise fund designed to pay for itself. However, the cost of waste-hauling and tipping fees are increasing dramatically, and the current sticker fee of $250 for the transfer station will only rise with it, officials say.

Council members stressed, however, that the issuance of an RFP doesn’t necessarily mean the transfer station is going away for regular trash collection. That will be determined when the RFP results come back, and only after more public discussion.

After over three hours of often-contentious debate during a meeting in the Portsmouth High School auditorium that was attended by more than 150 residents, the council voted unanimously to advertise two separate  requests for proposals (RFP):

1) One is to develop a town-wide curbside collection program, which would provide for bulky waste to be picked up curbside for an additional cost to each resident. The town would seek just one vendor for the job in order to reduce costs for enrolled residents.

2) The other is to prepare an RFP for curbside collection, but to keep the transfer station open for bulky waste and diversion materials from noon to 7 p.m. on Thursday, and from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. If this option were to be chosen by the council, the projected sicker cost would be $235.71 for each resident who chooses to use the station for bulky items. That cost, which is only an estimate, would be in addition to the cost of curbside pickup.

The council rejected the only other option, which was to seek an RFP for curbside collection only, thereby eliminating the aging transfer station outright.

Most people in the audience, however, let their feelings be known by either taking to the microphone or heckling the council from the seats: They like the convenience of the transfer station, and don’t want a curbside program forced upon them, especially if the costs are unknown. (Several said residents pay anywhere from $800 to $1,200 annually for private curbside pickup, depending on the hauler.)

How we got here

The council first directed the administrative staff in October 2022, in a unanimous vote, to develop an RFP for a “hybrid” program to keep the transfer station open for diversionary or bulky items while also offering curbside pickup for all. 

In May of this year, the council reviewed the draft RFP for a hybrid program before voting 4-3 to advertise it. Council members Daniela Abbott, Vice President Leonard Katzman, Charles Levesque and J. Mark Ryan voted in favor, while Aguiar, David Gleason, and Keith Hamilton opposed the motion.

Both meetings were duly advertised on the town’s website, featured lively debate from residents who want to keep the transfer station open, and were covered both in print and online by The Portsmouth Times. 

Despite this, many residents on Monday said the RFP caught them by surprise. Some said they didn’t learn about the previous meetings or the RFP until shortly before another agenda item concerning the RFP appeared on the council’s Sept. 11 docket, when Public Works Director Brian Woodhead was expected to ask for clarification. About 100 people turned out to Town Hall that night, prompting Aguiar to delay the matter until Monday so a larger space could be found to accommodate everyone who wanted to speak.

“We’re trying to catch up with you,” Betty Ann Czech of Roger Williams Court told the council.

Many residents also slammed town officials over a “white paper” survey that was developed last fall and placed on the town’s website for comment through April 14 of this year. Fifty-six people, most in favor of keeping the transfer station, replied to the survey.

Many residents said — or shouted out — that they never saw the survey, with some pointing out that the crowd in the PHS auditorium far outnumbered the white paper’s respondents.

“A 30-day survey with 56 respondents is not scientific,” said Siobhan Thurston, owner of the Almy-Thurston farm on Union Street, noting she was never informed about the white paper.

Town officials replied that short of sending out registered letters to all transfer station users — something Peter Roberts of Ormerod Avenue demanded — placing notice of public meetings and surveys on the town’s website was the most effective and efficient way to communicate town business. 

“We had this discussion back in May. You were there. It was on video. You probably spoke,” Aguiar replied to Roberts, a mainstay at council meetings who did indeed comment at the earlier gathering.

Aguiar repeatedly told audience members that Monday’s agenda item only concerned Woodhead’s requested clarification over the options for curbside pickup, and that going off topic could prompt an Open Meetings Act violation. A larger public discussion regarding the future of the transfer station will be held when the RFP results come back for council review, he assured the crowd.

“There is a time and a place for it. This isn’t it,” said Aguiar. “There’s no hidden agenda.”

Is a fix needed?

But Walter Baetjer, of Sandy Point Avenue, spoke for many in the crowd when he said if the transfer station operation isn’t broken, the town shouldn’t fix it. The town should issue another RFP, he said, for keeping the transfer station the way it is.

“This feels like the beginning of trying to close the transfer station, and that’s why people are so upset,” Baetjer said.

Council member Katzman said residents shouldn’t infer that just because the town is seeking the RFPs. He reminded the crowd that when the state tried to pressure the town into installing sewers, the council issued an RFP for the job. That didn’t mean the council wanted sewers, Katzman said. When the council learned what the cost would be, it proved to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management that sewers were financially unfeasible for the town, he said.

“When we get the number, we’ll look at it. The public will look at it,” said Katzman of the RFP results, which may not be available for another year.

Katzman also spoke up when a resident urged the town to put the transfer station back into the tax rolls, rather than operating it under an enterprise fund. The council member said the town took the transfer station out of the budget only after the infamous “tent meeting” of 2006, when a group of residents led by Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) voted to cut about $600,000 from the town budget at a special financial town meeting.

“We voted to cut (the transfer station) from the budget. Nobody wanted to do it,” he said.

Larry Fitzmorris, president of the PCC, later rebutted Katzman, saying the town budget actually increased by 4 percent that year, even with the cuts. He also argued for keeping the transfer station open, saying the revenue it’s bringing in has actually held steady recently.

“It’s one of the best-run things in the town,” Fitzmorris said to applause.

Karen Gleason, who organized a town-wide petition in favor of keeping the transfer station, said she doubts the town will be able to secure an affordable rate for curbside collection. “I have a neighbor who pays $1,200. You gotta have options for people,” she said.

Liz Pedro, a former council member, agreed. 

“I would like these people to have a choice. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And once they raise the prices, there’s nowhere to go,” she said.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.