Before city council votes Jan. 27, council members want to hear more feedback from Crookston residents.

The Crookston City Council when it next meets on Jan. 27 will vote on whether to continue with City-run garbage and recycling collection, or privatize the services by contracting with Countrywide Sanitation of Grand Forks.

Between now and then, council members stressed as they debated the pros and cons of the matter Monday evening, they want Crookston residents to offer their opinions on what they think the council should do.

“I hope we get some feedback from the public, because that’s what really matters,” Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said at the council’s Ways & Means Committee meeting. “I want a response, because we’re losing big money on this and we’d have to really raise the rates (to erase the City’s current sanitation deficit).”

The City is currently running an annual deficit of approximately $55,000 in its garbage and recycling budget. That blot of red ink, coupled with a pending retirement in the sanitation staff, spurred the City last year, with the council’s blessing, to put out a request for proposals for garbage and recycling services, and Countrywide Sanitation subsequently submitted the lone proposal.

Countrywide Sanitation owner Rachel Gornowicz detailed her proposal to the council last October, then everyone let the matter sit for a while as council members gathered feedback from Crookston residents. Gornowicz was back in the city hall council chambers Monday evening to offer additional details and answer more questions, before the council agreed to table a vote for two more weeks to give the public one final opportunity to weigh in.

As for the feedback they’ve received so far, some council members indicated Monday, it seems that Crookston’s older population is more hesitant about making the switch, mostly because they’re concerned about having to push garbage and recycling roll-carts to their curbside, while Crookston’s younger residents are more eager to sign up with a private service provider.

 

The current situation, and what’s being proposed

For many years, every Crookston residence with a City water account, whether they use the City’s garbage and recycling pick-up or not, has been assessed a $5 monthly fee on their water/utility bill for garbage and recycling services. In addition to that cost, if they use City garbage and recycling services, they’re required to buy City-issued bags to be placed at their curbside for pick-up.

The widespread unpopularity of the policy requiring the purchase City bags, but, especially, the presence of the Polk County Transfer Station in Crookston – where people can bring their garbage and recyclables free of charge – has long resulted in a limited number of Crookston residents utilizing the City’s curbside pick-up. As a result, Public Works Director Pat Kelly’s sanitation crews are typically finished with their daily collection route by lunchtime and they spend their afternoons performing other duties.

Gornowicz, who said she’s been in the sanitation business for 35 years, has proposed a $10.90 per month charge per residence for weekly garbage collection, and $3.95 for recycling collection. (Whether that would be monthly or every other week is open for discussion, she noted.) Add in the $2 administrative fee for customer service, online support, etc., and the monthly fee for customers would be $16.85. Each residence opting in would receive two 96-gallon carts, one with a brown lid for garbage and one with a green lid for recyclables. On collection days, the bins would be picked up by a truck equipped with a robotic arm, dumped, and set back down. The materials would then be hauled to the local transfer station. People living alone, the elderly, handicapped or others needing special accommodation would have the potential option of using smaller carts, and in special circumstances, Gornowicz said, Countrywide Sanitation personnel would walk up to the house to get the carts.

Customers could pay for additional services as well, such as a third cart for grass clippings, yard waste and small branches during the warmer months. And while it’s very much looking like at least one clean-up week will be offered annually to customers who pay for it – the City currently coordinates two events per year, one each in the spring and fall – Gornowicz and council members acknowledged during Monday’s discussion that there are details still to be hashed out on just how clean-up week events will be coordinated if the City contracts with Countrywide Sanitation.

Everyone seems to agree that at least one clean-up week and possibly two per year should remain, but council members, such as Ward 1’s Jake Fee, are concerned about a bunch of Crookston residents heaping junk by their curbs expecting it all to be picked up, even though they haven’t paid Countrywide Sanitation, and don’t necessarily plan to pay them.

There are 3,147 households in Crookston. Back in October, Gornowicz estimated that 2,000 of those would sign up to receive Countrywide Sanitation’s services. Told by some council members then – again, predominantly because of the presence of the free transfer station – that her estimate was way too high, Gornowicz this week said she could make her pricing structure work with a minimum Crookston customer base of 800 households. (She did leave open the possibility that, during the initial five-year contract, there would be annual inflationary-related fee increases.) Council members thought 800 households was definitely a customer goal that Gornowicz could reach and even exceed.

Gornowicz’s business has provided garbage and recycling collection for several years in East Grand Forks, and a new, five-year contract there was recently signed. She said she’s confident that Crookston customers would sign up for her company’s services, and be happy that they did.

“I think we’d get a nice turnout; it’s a nice service to have. And I think over time people would see that it’s a good service and more people would sign up, too,” Gornowicz said. “We are a very experienced company and we pride ourselves on our customer service.”

It’s likely that, as part of the monthly administrative fee, she said, Countrywide Sanitation would add a “Crookston” tab to its website to provide timely updates on things such as holiday collection schedules, or modified schedules in the event that Countrywide Sanitation cannot get to Crookston because of a blizzard. Automatic online bill pay would also be set up for Crookston customers, she said.

Presiding Mayor Dale Stainbrook reminded council members that if the City ends up contracting with the private sector for garbage and recycling collection, the City will be “completely out of the garbage business. That would be it.” The City would sell its trucks and other equipment in that scenario as well. It was Stainbrook who suggested voting on the matter in two weeks.

“We would love to work with you,” Gornowicz said. “But we know it’s a big change for you.”