Sanitation Dept. is hot topic at town retreat

Keeping the Sanitation Department in the black has always been a challenge for the Town of Highlands. Of its three enterprise funds – electric, water/sewer and sanitation – sanitation always needs a transfer of funds from an unreserved fund balance to break even.

“We lose money every year without transferring funds,” said Treasurer Rebecca Shuler at the Town’s annual retreat earlier this month.

Ideas to get the department in the black included cutting residential pickup to one time a week instead of two, going out of the trash business, raising rates across the board, raising rates only for weekend pickups in the commercial district, raising rates just for those businesses that need extra trash pickup on the weekends, charging Vacation Rentals and AirBnBs the commercial rate for pickup, and finally finding a place for a “convenience” center where residents and businesses can take their trash in between pickups. 

“No one does residential pickup two times a week anywhere,” said Commissioner Amy Patterson. “They just do one time, so we need to look at that option, too.”

Town Manager Josh Ward said going out of the trash business was a possibility, but he was certain residents and businesses wouldn’t be happy because they wouldn’t get the same level of service at the price at which they are accustom. Commissioner Patterson said maybe an outside contractor would just pick up the business district, but Ward said he didn’t know if it would be worth their while.

Though increasing fees across the board has been the answer in the past, Commissioner Patterson said residential customers already subsidize commercial customers, so she didn’t want to jump the gun on raising rates.

“Let’s figure out a more effective and efficient way to do this instead of raising rates,” said Patterson. “The commercial tonnage of FY ’19-’20 is almost exactly the same so something is off, and we have already spent the entire amount allocated for overtime for ’20-’21 in half a year.”

Just raising commercial rates or just raising rates for those businesses that need more pickups than others was also considered, as was charging Vacation Rentals/VRBOs or AirBnBs as commercial entities. 

But Ward said they had learned that it is unlawful to require Vacation Rentals/VRBOs or AirBnBs to register, which means there isn’t a documented way to segregate them from residential customers.

Police Chief Andrea Holland and Officer Leah McCall said there really hasn’t been an issue with the Vacation Rental market as to not complying with bear-proof trash cans and overflowing trash.

There have been a few instances, but Officer McCall said people comply after one visit and she hasn’t had to issue any fines for anything regarding trash.

Finding a place in town for a “convenience center” is discussed annually, but no one wants one in their back yard.

“Where could we put a convenience center without a huge outcry? As good as an idea is, we still have to figure out how it would work,” said Commissioner Patterson.

Acknowledging that the main reason for the department deficit is due to overtime, Public Works Director Lamar Nix said the day before the retreat he had made changes in the department to offset the overtime hours logged particularly in the commercial arena.

He said he has stopped cardboard pickup in the business district, has stopped personnel in other departments – many who make a higher hourly wage – from logging overtime in the sanitation department and limited sanitation employees to four hours of overtime on a weekend.

In addition, Department Head Larry Houston is supplying a list of businesses that consistently need more pickups than others particularly on weekends, in case the town wants to charge them more. Nix said part of the problem is certain businesses have a need for more pickups due to a lack of capacity and some don’t have space for increased capacity. 

In that case commissioners said an increase just for them would just be “the cost of doing business.”

In the end, commissioners agreed to collect and go over the data before making sanitation department rate changes for FY ’21-’22.

“Let’s not overreact. In one year, let’s see if Lamar’s new policy works and then if necessary, let’s consider targeting rate increases rather than raising rates across the board,” said Commissioner Patterson.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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