Who should Le Center’s recycling system work for — growing families or older adults with fixed incomes? That was the underlying question looming over the public hearing at City Hall Wednesday, Oct. 9.
After Le Sueur County withdrew funding for Le Center’s recycling plant, starting January 2020, City Council decided to hold a public hearing Oct. 9 to hear from citizens on how the city should continue garbage and recycling. Without county funding, the city is considering two options: continue the city’s current garbage and recycling system and add security to keep non-residents out of the recycling center or hire a contractor that residents can voluntarily do business with to pick up their trash and recycling.
At the hearing, residents' voices were heard, but clarity was not reached, as some indicated the current system is working well for them, while others — particularly those with larger households — indicated it is not.
The city has so far received two bids from contractors out of five the city had requested bids from. One offer was under $17 per month and the other was around $24 per month. However, Mayor Josh Frederickson warned that these numbers are preliminary and are unlikely to be representative of the actual cost. For this reason, the bids weren’t disclosed to the public until the council received multiple requests at the hearing.
“I can tell you from my job, I work with these companies all the time. That’s not going to be the end dollar,” said Frederickson. “There’s going to be additional fees tacked on. So that’s really why I didn’t want to share them … They’re not true, hard numbers.”
Most councilors came to the hearing without strong opinions on what direction the city should go in, opting to instead hear from the public. Councilor Jenny Weiers was the exception; she came advocating for a contracted service.
“I personally feel that the contracted portion would be better for the city,” said Weiers. “I’ve had a lot of people come to me saying they can’t get to the recycling center when its open. It’s only open until noon on Saturdays and that’s not enough for a lot of people. Younger families with kids can’t get up there, and they have to wait another week. Another week goes by, same thing happens. I, too, have driven by the recycling center numerous times on the weekend and seen numerous bags piled up … People take the opportunity to just dump their junk whenever they can because no one is there monitoring it. I just think this would be a better option for city residents.”
City Attorney Jason Moran also commented based on his experiences working as an attorney for other cities, including Janesville, Elysian, Waterville and Madison Lake.
“The majority of cities I work for typically go with contracted service and the reason for that is fairly elementary,” said Moran. “It’s typically a lot cheaper. The city doesn’t have to staff a truck, insure a truck; the city doesn’t have to maintain a truck; the city doesn’t have to purchase a truck.”
“If we go with a contracted service, as the mayor indicated, we’ll have to get RFPs, solicit proposals and vet out a good qualified contractor,” Moran added. “If we go with a good qualified service, not everyone’s bill is going to be the same. A family with a large number of kids or garbage, your bill might be a little higher than someone with a smaller family. If we go with a contracted service, it’s more than likely going to give you flexibility on how big your container is and that sort of thing. Both of them have pros and cons.”
Before opening the floor to public, Mayor Frederickson offered some reasons why residents may prefer to stick with the current recycling system.
“The one thing about the current blue bag system is it does allow a family to budget. You know how much garbage you’re going to use … With the aging population we do have here … a single person home, or a two person home, to have a mandated monthly fee every single month at the same dollar amount, I just don’t know if I like that idea," he said.
“It is an employer for our youth in town as well,” Frederickson added. “It gives those kids, some under the age of 18, an opportunity to learn how to work … The kids that are down there bust their tails.”
Keeping the blue bags
City Hall was a full house Wednesday night with dozens of residents in attendance. Many of the faces in the crowd were Le Center residents with single or two-person households. For them, the current blue bag system has been a cost effective and convenient way to get rid of trash and recycling and few were ready to give that up.
“I have been all over this state of Minnesota and I disagree with your attorney,” said Joe Beecher, the first member of the public to take the podium. “I’m a single man in my household and it cost me like $30 a year to pack the garbage into those blue bags. To go to a single payer, it would be $30 a month. So it’s ten times, 12 times what I pay now, and that’s not acceptable. It’s just not acceptable. I see what everyone is saying about picking up garbage, but in my case, if I recycle my paper, recycle my plastics, recycle my tin cans, recycle everything, it really affects what I pay.”
Beecher wasn’t alone in his concerns and many other residents took the stand to advocate keeping the blue bag system. Will Schmidts told the council that the current system was convenient and that the curbies that come with a contracted service would be an eyesore.
“I can guarantee you out of every city I lived in, out of the six, those containers did not stay in the garages,” said Schmidts. “I’ll guarantee you’ll never follow that ordinance. You’ll be handing out fines all the time … The reason I chose Le Center was by word of mouth, I heard it was a nice city … I was thrilled with the idea that I can set my blue bag on the street and Curt will pick it up and every five weeks or six weeks … You’ve got a great thing here, why change it?”
Bob Fosser also argued in favor of keeping the current system. In addition to pointing out how cheap the blue bags were, Fosser highlighted the benefits that working for the city has brought to some of the area’s developmentally disabled residents.
“I have a disabled son who works at Waterville with the LCDS (Le Sueur County Developmental Services) who provides the blue bags. That is an opportunity for that community to do some work, some satisfying work. We take that away from them and it’s just one more thing … Blue bags to that community is very important," Fosser said.
Other residents argued that curbies would be inconvenient for those without garages and those living in apartment buildings.
Hiring a contractor
Not everyone was on board with keeping the city’s current recycling service, though. Some Le Center residents with families still in the home or businesses that require large amounts of supplies came forward to argue that the current system was not meeting their needs. One such resident was Steve Brown, a small business owner operating out of one of Le Center’s residential districts.
“One thing I want to point out is that this group here is very, very biased, because we have very few people in this room under the age of 50,” said Brown. “You guys who are paying $3-4 a month for garbage; that is absolutely wonderful for you. I am ordering anywhere from $10-15,000 worth of materials from my organization that comes in cardboard boxes and plastic bags … I am spending $300 a month on blue bags to try and get rid of my garbage. My garage/warehouse is absolutely unusable. Every city that I have lived in has curbies. It is convenient. I am working six to seven days a week. I don’t come home until 6-7 o’clock at night a lot of times. This system that we have here is not for younger people. It just isn’t.”
Brown’s comments prompted backlash from some in the crowd, requiring City Council to remind everyone that once someone has the podium, it was their turn to talk. Frustrations remained high at the meeting, and proceedings continued with the occasional interruption.
“I’m sorry that this is going to affect our elderly population,” Brown continued. “I think this city wants to promote growth and I can tell you right now, that people, younger people moving into this town with this blue bag recycling system we have is, it’s outdated. There’s no town within a 20-mile radius that has this type of system.”
Travis Nichols brought forth his experience as a father in a family of eight.
“We have a large family of eight, so we go through a lot of trash," he said. "We recycle everything and I’m still going up with a large canister of recycling every two weeks … I know a lot of families in our area just don’t recycle anything … With all of our kids, we’re busy. It’s hard to get up there, sometimes it piles up for a month, then I have a whole pickup full of recycling.”
He continued, “My brother, who lives here in town, they had a rental property right next to them that had not the best people maybe. They piled all the trash behind their garage. It got to the point where my brother’s fence started to cave in because there was so much trash, because it's not handled in an orderly fashion in this town.”
Travis Fisher, a registered nurse, argued that the current blue bag system, which does not require bags to be contained in a curbie, was a potential public health hazard.
“My daughter has very deathly allergies to a lot of food products,” said Fisher. “Milk, egg, chickpea, garbanzo beans, sesame, melon and pineapple being a few of them. We have gone to the ER several times and we do have epipens and I cannot tell you how many times I go outside and have a Twix wrapper or a Snickers wrapper or a bag of Cheetos or something laying in one of my bushes.”
Fisher argued that, without containers, it was too easy for trash to spread from the blue bags, which he noted could spread deadly bacteria like salmonella, and could be easily spread by pets and vermin.
“If we stay with what we have now," he said, "I would highly suggest an improvement to the bags to make them be able to be tied off … as well as seeing how much a curbie would cost, just to keep the bags contained, because walking around on a Wednesday or a Thursday, we just can’t do it with our daughter, because there’s so much stuff blowing around that she’s come home covered in hives.”
Residents remained divided over the issue and some felt that the public couldn’t develop a proper opinion until they knew the costs of a contractor. Others remarked that the meeting’s timing during Homecoming week kept everyone who wanted to attend the meeting from doing so.
In response, several councilors indicated that they wanted to hold a separate meeting once they had a better understanding of the offers that the city had received. Mayor Frederickson noted that the City Council would not have to make a final decision before the year is up.
“Council is more than prepared to run as is until we come to a solution,” said Frederickson. “It’s not going to end Dec. 31.”
In their closing remarks, the council members told residents that the hearing had been a learning experience.
“Le Center is unique city,” said Councilor Christian Harmeyer. “We will think through this thoroughly. We may not please everybody, but what we’re doing is best for the city.”