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City of Wellington contemplates switching to automatic trash service; but start-up costs are significant

by Tracy McCue, Sumner Newscow — The Wellington City Council is contemplating a new way to collect trash. The problem, as always, is the costs of making the transition.

Last month, when the council gathered to look at looming city projects on the immediate horizon, the subject of trash came up. The city of Wellington is currently losing money on its waste collections to a tune of about $25,000 a year. Also, the city needs to buy two new trash trucks and perhaps a third by 2020 to round out full replacement of a four-truck fleet.

But instead of purchasing new rear-loading trucks at $150,000 to $180,000 a pop, the council instead is contemplating following the lead of many private trash companies and some municipalities and going with automation.

An automated trash service as the video illustrates will feature a truck with a side-loader (or front loader) that pulls up to the side of the curb. A mechanical arm reaches out and grabs a designated trash container before dumping trash into the bin. There would be two containers: one for regular trash and the second for recyclables.

The key difference from a customer standpoint: everyone would use city-sanctioned dumpsters and everyone would have to put their trash to the curb. Commercial customers, due to the sheer volume of trash consumed, would still be picked up with traditional rear-loaders.

The City of El Dorado has gone to fully automation since 2009. Brad Meyer, Director of Public Works at El Dorado, swears by it.

“The greatest thing from a city’s standpoint is you don’t have to worry about workers not showing, spraining an ankle or coming to work hung over,” he said. “You have reduced labor costs and not have to worry so much over workers comp claims. I’m surprised more cities haven’t converted already.”

Wellington Public Director Jeremy Jones estimates that by going t0 automation the city could reduce labor by at least two full time positions. Then there is the savings of recycling.

But there is a tradeoff. In order to go toward automation, it could cost the city up to $2.2 million in up-front costs.

Wellington City Manager Shane Shields estimates the city would need to purchase two side-loading trucks: one for regular trash and one for recyclable pickups, another building to separate the recyclables from the regular trash, and another shed to store the trucks, because the side-loading trucks are significantly bigger than the traditional rear-loading ones.

Then there is the initial cost of purchasing trash containers at the cost of $300,000. City consumers would eventually reimburse the city for use of the trash containers with rental fees.

Currently, the city of Wellington has three people manning the trucks – one to drive and the other two to dump the trash. Jones said that would be reduced to one driver, who would operate the truck and side-loading mechanism. If everything goes as plans, the worker would never leave the truck.

Jones said in the past eight years, the city has had four years of profitability followed by four years in losses. He doesn’t see it turning around anytime considering the future purchase of trucks and other operating expenses. He said at this current moment, two of the four rear-loading trucks are near inoperable and the amount in overtime of fixing them is costing the city tremendous money.

A new side-loading truck purchase will cost the city around $200,000 to $250,000, Jones said. But, if the city can reduce the number of workers, like say two full-time employees, that there is a savings of $70,000.

Wellington currently has a recycling program in which people bring down their recyclables once a month on a Saturday to the Wellington Recycling Center. If the automation system is implemented, the city would come to the consumers. Each customer would need to procure two trash containers from the city – one for recyclable trash such as glass containers, newspapers, aluminum cans, plastics, etc. and then regular trash would be placed in the other dumpster.

Jones said speaking with other municipalities, the trash runs about 50 percent recyclables to 50 percent regular trash. The recyclables would then go to one storage shed to be picked up and sent to a recycling center in Hutchinson. The city of Wellington would be reimbursed for the recyclables.

The regular trash would be in another storage shed and then sent to the public landfill in Harper County. Wellington pays about $24 a ton to ship off its trash now.

Jones said the 50 percent reduction in regular trash disposal coupled by the increase in recyclables will bring tremendous savings in waste management, not to mention making Wellington more environmentally friendly.

Ultimately, the main question is what will it cost city taxpayers.

Jones said regardless if the council remains with rear-loading trucks or moves toward automation, trash rates will need to be raised which haven’t been done since 2010. Trash rates are currently at $14.25 a customer. He recommended to the council at the March 6 city work session that an increase of five percent was needed to stop the bleeding.

So would the switch to trash automation cost the customers more than staying with rear-loading trucks? Jones would not commit.

“There are a lot of variables coming into play here,” he said. “We have to sit down and look at all the options to see what would be the most economical sense for the city of Wellington.”

Meyers said in El Dorado the transition was not as costly as it was originally feared. He said the city of El Dorado did not increase its rates for three years after the automation system was implemented. Then a standard increase was applied thereafter, but that was simply a standard increase, he said.

The Wellington City Council has twice had a proposal presented to them before going toward an automation system. Both times it was rejected. However, there seems to be more movement this time around.

At the March 6 meeting, both Kip Etter and Vince Wetta expressed their desire to move forward.

“I want a plan,” Wetta said. “I won’t support any kind of rate increase until I know what our long term plans will be.”

Etter was emphatic. He said he spoke with a friend in Arizona, who told him the recycling alone paid for all other sanitation expenses. Jones said that probably won’t happen here.

“I think we could break even on recyclables, but we won’t make break-away profits either,” Jones said. “What the city will see is savings both in the form of labor and trash disposal fees in Harper.”

Unfortunately, that would mean the layoff of at least two full-time employees, maybe more. But Jones said the trash collecting business has a tremendous turnover rate anyway.

Jones said in order to move forward, it would probably be a stair-step process – perhaps target one area of town to make the transition, before the next one. There will be a learning curve. Not only will customers must dispose of their old dumpsters to make way for two city-sanctioned trash containers, but they must learn what constitutes as recyclable material and what is not.

Also, everything will be curbside pickup. Trash can no longer be picked up in the alley because of the size of the trucks.

Meyers said it won’t be that difficult. Each city dumpster has a 10-year warranty. The customers would be charged for any damages incurred – for example, fireworks burning the containers up. He said the city will replace the dumpsters free of charge if they are stolen or acts of nature.

Jones said the city will have to re-organize the routes since everything will be curbside.

“Today the city makes about 1,000 stops a day with three trash trucks,” he said. “One side-loader truck can make 900 stops a day. You do the math.”

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