Two Island Trash Districts Consider Partnership

By MANDY LOCKE

A decade after Tisbury and Oak Bluffs pulled out of the Islandwide trash district in the midst of a bitter political battle, officials from both districts are discussing a renewed partnership.

The moment comes as the Martha's Vineyard Regional Refuse and Resource Recovery District takes a step toward privatization - a business model Tisbury and Oak Bluffs adopted in their split from the district in 1993. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs are nearing the end of a contract with Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI). Now is the time, some officials say, for the two districts to get back together - leveraging all the Island's trash, construction debris and recycling for a better deal.

"We've been probing various approaches to an Islandwide refuse and recycling solution for the last four years. This seems like the right moment. But it's a complex process to wade through," said Fred LaPiana, Tisbury's department of public works director, in a conversation with the Gazette this week. Mr. LaPiana is Tisbury's point person in the town's dealings with BFI.

The potential reunification makes good financial sense, some officials say. Mainland trash handlers will be lured by a contract promising nearly 30,000 tons of trash, construction debris and recycling each year. The district handles 14,000 tons, while Tisbury and Oak Bluffs jointly generate 12,000 to 15,000 tons. A mainland operator curious about the Island market took a tour of the Edgartown transfer station Tuesday morning; Oak Bluffs and Tisbury officials were along for the show and tell.

"Rejoining the regional effort would work best. We would do well with a higher volume of trash. But there are definite sticking points. The way the district operates and the way we run is very different. We're not very interested in a big administration," said Richard Combra Jr., Oak Bluffs highway superintendent. Mr. Combra deals with solid waste issues for Oak Bluffs.

But the regional refuse district, which handles trash for Edgartown and the up-Island towns, is moving toward eliminating the administrative middleman in the coming year. Last month, the district voted unanimously to have a consultant help them draft a request for proposals for a turn-key operation. If the district continues down this path, the regional trash handler would hire a private company to run the operation.

"It all started during the budget process. We're jumping $12 a ton from this year to next. We had a responsibility to look at an alternative structure," said Larry Mercier, a representative from Edgartown to the refuse district.

Over the last few years, the district has wrestled with mounting debt and rising costs. This past year, district leaders have whittled down a deficit of about a half-million dollars. While district leaders say the operation's finances are now in better shape, steep price hikes in the coming year are unavoidable with the closure of the Chilmark landfill. Nearly 3,000 tons of construction and demolition debris formerly buried in the landfill must now be trucked off with the rest of the district's rubbish - a shift in business operation expected to cost the district about $200,000 a year.

Something's got to give, Mr. Mercier said. Taking administrative overhead out of the equation would save the district about $200,000. It is a reasonable solution, he said, but getting there might be more complicated.

"[Privatizing] may mean restructuring district contracts with the towns, and it won't be an easy process," said Mr. Mercier.

At least one other district leader is not sure eliminating the district's management is the way to go.

"It's been considered one of the strengths of the district that the towns had control over their trash," said Richard Skidmore, Aquinnah representive to and chairman of the district committee.

"Having a private company in charge of four towns' trash - that to me is a middleman who requires a profit," Mr. Skidmore added.

Elimination of administrative costs was the battle cry of Tisbury and Oak Bluffs officials leading the effort to pull out of the district in 1993. Privatization, Mr. Combra and Mr. LaPiana agreed, has worked for their towns - both from the standpoint of cost and efficiency.

While the two districts' contrasting business models makes comparing their bottom lines difficult, the per-ton residential costs for the two groups actually were within a dollar this year. In both trash districts, customers pay a fee when they drop off their trash. But regional refuse district towns also pay an assessment - used to cover administrative costs, debt service, hazardous waste disposal and recycling. Town assessments next year exceed $700,000. Even if the regional refuse district is privatized, they will still be on the hook for capital costs associated with capping the Chilmark and Edgartown landfills.

In Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, some tax dollars are directed through the highway department and department of public works to deal with trash. In Tisbury, public works employees run the local dump and pick up residential trash weekly. That labor costs Tisbury about $125,000 a year. Any needed capital improvements to dumps in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs are paid for with a surcharge on trash. Each month, Mr. LaPiana said, the town of Tisbury receives a check from BFI - a refund of $3 per every ton collected.

Mr. Mercier said the district could copy that model to help pay off its $2 million of debt for the transfer station near the airport.

Officials in both districts admit they are far from making any formal arrangements to collaborate. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday night to extend their BFI contract for one year, time enough to arrange a joint move with the regional refuse district in the year ahead.

Another hurdle to jump is resolution of a lawsuit lingering from the 1993 split. The district is demanding $100,000 from Oak Bluffs - money they say the town agreed to pay to help cap the Edgartown landfill when it left the Island wide district. The lawsuit is making its way through court.

Getting back together will likely be easier than breaking up. Most don't even remember why the towns split up a decade ago. A search for the cheapest and cleanest way to deal with nearly 30,000 tons of unwanted debris will drive this collaboration.

"I don't think there are bad feelings anymore, and there haven't been for years. This is strictly a business decision. There's got to be a better way to process our Island's trash," said Mr. LaPiana.