Trash cash comes up short

MERRIMACK – Sixteen tons, and what do you get?

Another day older, if not deeper in debt, if you’re talking about the amount of trash being taken to the town’s new transfer station, which opened in January.

Under the current disposal rate, 16 tons would get you not quite a day’s worth of trash. Town officials were anticipating something closer to 32-33 tons a day.

According to Public Works Director Ed Chase, 526 tons of municipal solid waste, with a small amount of construction debris mixed in, were taken to the transfer station in its first month of operation.

Projected over a year, the amount would total 6,312 tons. Town officials had anticipated 12,000 tons a year, and the town’s proposed 2004-05 budget allows for 18,500 tons.

The lower volume doesn’t affect two of the town’s three contracts related to disposing trash. But it means that for the third, the town could overpay up to $64,110 before the contract can be renegotiated in June.

The contract in question is what the town pays WeCare Transportation to load trash from the transfer station. That contract covers equipment and personnel WeCare provides for the loading.

Not affected are what the town pays for WeCare to take the trash, or for the trash to be processed by Turnkey Recycling & Environmental Enterprises of Rochester. Those contracts are based on a fee per ton of trash transported or processed.

But the town pays WeCare a flat fee of $243,763 per year for providing the equipment and manpower to load the trash. That’s $121,881.50 for a half-year. If the trend continues that the transfer station is only collecting 52.6 percent of the anticipated 6,000 tons per half year, then the town would have paid about $64,110 more than what town officials estimated when selectmen approved the contract.

“Right now, we would be overpaying for the amount of trash that we would be taking there,” Selectmen’s Chairman Dick Hinch said.

Why less trash is coming in is no mystery to town officials: At a commercial tipping fee of $110 per ton, many private haulers are taking their trash to a transfer station in Bow, which charges only $83 per ton.

The tipping fee is only charged for commercial haulers. Merrimack residents can bring trash to the Lawrence Road transfer station for free, as they did to the landfill.

“We all knew up front we would lose the large haulers, the BFI, the Waste Management,” Hinch said.

But local trash-hauling companies – the ones that mainly service homes – had assured town officials that at $110 per ton, it would still make more financial sense for them to bring waste to Merrimack than to transport it out of town. Turns out, that hasn’t been the case.

“It was a surprise to everyone that local haulers would take their trash out of town,” said Norm Phillips, a member of the town Budget Committee.

But Phillips noted that the miscalculation won’t have much of an immediate impact on the town budget. But if it becomes a permanent reality, that could mean a reduction in the six-person town staff that works at the transfer station.

However, town officials are a long way from accepting that the trash volume won’t increase.

“We’re two months into something we’ve never done before,” Hinch said. “Who knows what the spring is going to bring us.”

“The trash tonnage question is really a crapshoot, and nobody had a crystal ball,” said Chase, the Public Works director.

He noted that this January has been one of the coldest on record and that could have worked to keep the volumes of trash down.

“You’re not out shingling the roof of your house or out doing renovation projects that would produce trash,” Chase said.

Regardless, the town had incorporated a safety valve in its contract with WeCare. In June, either party could opt to renegotiate the flat fee based on the amount of trash actually coming in.

WeCare now has two trucks, three trailers, a large loader, a smaller loader and two workers at the transfer station, based on the anticipated volume, Chase said. With less trash, the company would need to provide less equipment, and the town could pay less, he said.

“Which I think is reasonable for both parties and the best thing we can do to protect the town’s interests,” Chase said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or