Raise Dump Fees? Not So Fast

Town board members were alerted to a roughly $300,000 hole in the sanitation fund, which was left in place by their predecessors

    Even after they are gone from office, the previous administration in East Hampton Town Hall continues to cause problems and in at least one case — an expected jump in fees for waste disposal — it appears to be by design. But former Supervisor Bill Wilkinson et al. do not deserve all the blame for the new board’s haste to increase fees. Before doing so, it must take a close look at what appears to be a bloated Sanitation Department.

    In a meeting this month, town board members were alerted to a roughly $300,000 hole in the sanitation fund, which was left in place by their predecessors. The 2014 town budget, approved in November, included more income from permit-cost hikes at the town’s two transfer stations, but the former board neglected to vote in increases in the cost of permits. Instead, it has fallen to Supervisor Larry Cantwell and the Democratic majority on the new board to approve sure-to-be-unpopular increases or come up with the money otherwise if it cannot make equivalent cuts.

    What’s unfortunate about this is that the sanitation fund is more or less a closed box — the deficit left by the previous administration must be filled from within because there is little room in the budget, constrained as it is by the state’s 2-percent tax-levy cap. Mr. Cantwell has said improved recycling rates may help, but that effect would be limited and take time to be realized.

    Under the newest proposal, the cost for most residents would rise 15 percent, to $115 for a household’s first permit. Those without permits would see the $10 per-trip fee doubled. Commercial haulers would see their costs go up as well, but by less-sharp margins. Though these increases may seem minor to some of those pulling in near-six-figure salaries in Town Hall, they would have a disproportionate impact on the many so-called self-haulers, a group probably least able to easily absorb the expense.

     An alternative, particularly for those who take only modest amounts of household waste to the transfer stations as well as for short-term or seasonal visitors, may be seen in Southampton Town. There, residents are required to buy specific green-tinted garbage bags for their garbage. The drop-off cost is included in the price, and recyclables are accepted without cost. In East Hampton on the other hand, residents must buy permits even if they take only glass, cardboard, and aluminum to the dump.

    One immediate advantage of the Southampton model is that because residents have to buy the bags, they almost instantly become frugal about their waste, producing less, compressing what they absolutely have to throw away into the smallest possible volume, and recycling more. It is a far more progressive and cost-efficient method than East Hampton’s.

    While East Hampton officials are at it, they also should take a close look at how Southampton runs its waste-disposal efforts. Excluding debt costs for both towns, East Hampton spends more than $1 million more a year on disposal even though Southampton has more than twice the population. Furthermore, Southampton Town has four transfer stations to East Hampton’s two, and two of Southampton’s four are open seven days a week; both of East Hampton’s are closed on Wednesdays.

    As for the number of employees, the disparity is glaring: Despite a larger operation, Southampton has fewer, 13 to East Hampton’s 19, and none makes more than $100,000 a year in combined salary and benefits as do two in East Hampton. Want more? The East Hampton Sanitation Department’s annual electric bill is more than twice Southampton’s. Why? Who knows, but this is among the myriad questions town officials should ask well before they rush to stick it to residents in the form of higher fees.