For $5 more a month, Crookston residents would get better City garbage, recycling services

Mike Christopherson

After advertising for proposals several months ago from private garbage and recycling collection firms interested in providing their services in Crookston and then voting against the proposal from the lone bidder, Countrywide Sanitation of Grand Forks, the Crookston City Council remains determined to revolutionize the way it collects garbage and recyclables.

The council Monday night unanimously approved a plan that as soon as next year could have a lone staff member driving a truck equipped with a hydraulic arm picking up garbage weekly from a wheeled cart and recyclables monthly from another wheeled cart, both of which would be provided to Crookston residents who want the service.

To finance the purchase of the truck and the carts, the council OK’ed doubling the garbage fee, from $5 to $10, currently included on every monthly water bill, whether residents use the City bag-based garbage collection service or not. As things stand now, Public Works Director Pat Kelly estimates, around 75% of Crookston residents don’t buy the colored City bags to be picked up at their curbside, and instead bring their garbage to the Polk County Transfer Station in town, free of charge. With such a small usage rate of City collection services, Kelly’s sanitation crew for years has finished its garbage route by lunchtime and spends their afternoons doing other duties.

The City’s sanitation budget runs an annual deficit, most recently in the $50,000 range. That’s largely what spurred the council to explore potentially outsourcing the services. When the council voted against the Countrywide Sanitation proposal – they were mostly concerned about the company’s proposed rates and potential for increases in the future – they asked Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner to crunch the numbers and see what it would take financially for the City to erase the deficit, but also what it would take financially to buy the more technologically advanced truck and wheeled carts for residents.

Monday, Weasner said raising the monthly fee on the water bills from $5 to $7 would erase the deficit. Doubling it to $10 would give the City enough money in five to seven years to purchase the new truck and carts. After first talking about possibly increasing the fee even more in order to fast-track the change, council members eventually settled on a plan that includes the increase to $10, but instead of waiting several years to make the move, they directed Weasner to explore ways to finance the move on a faster timeline, as soon as next year, as use the additional revenue to service the debt.

Ward 6 Council Member Dylane Klatt, who was shocked to learn that only 25% of Crookston residents use the City’s garbage collection service, said he’s a big proponent of making the change, and that even with the Transfer Station in town, more people would likely utilize the City service because it would be less of a hassle, and cheaper than buying packs of City bags.

“Any modern city you go to these days… I think we have to offer this to our citizens,” Klatt said. “When I moved here, I thought (the City bag-based model) was the strangest thing.”

To that, Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee said he’s “never bought a (City) bag in 17 years.”

There are logistics to be worked out, such as catering to the elderly, disabled or others who for various reasons would struggle to wheel their carts to their curbside. Also, Kelly said he needs to look into whether or not the new truck with its high-arching hydraulic arm would be able to drive through alleys with overhead power lines.

But everyone agreed that those issues can be discussed amongst themselves as well as with the public later. Weasner said that since the proposal involves a change in a utility rate, a public hearing will be required at some point. Monday’s council vote, at their Ways & Means Committee meeting, simply clears the way for Weasner and Kelly to continue planning for the eventual change in City garbage and recycling collection.

“We’re at a deficit now, so we have to do something,” Klatt said.

Currently, a sanitation crew on garbage and recycling collection duty is composed of two people. If and when the change takes place, only a driver would be necessary. Kelly has said and he reiterated Monday, when asked by At Large Council Member Bobby Baird, that the impacted staff member would more than likely be able to slide into another position with other duties. Baird said he doesn’t want anyone to lose their job due to the change.

Weasner said that once the public hearing is held and, assuming there’s no major community opposition or a change of heart on the council, the rate fee increase would kick in next year.

At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten, citing citizen opposition to previous discussions about changing the City’s garbage collection service, wondered if the council was putting the “cart before the horse.” He said he could envision the council chambers filling up with citizens against the idea. “We’d do all of this work and then the people don’t want it,” Vedbraaten said.

To that, Baird said most in the past were upset about the increased cost. For a much-improved City service, he added, people would be paying only $5 more a month. “That’s a lot less than (what) Countrywide (proposed),” Baird noted.

“And the contract allowed for annual increases,” Fee said, adding that he thinks the way the council is approaching the situation has the “cart staying with the horse.”

The public hearing will give the council valuable direction, Ward 4 Council Member Don Cavalier interjected.

“We can make our decisions based on the reaction from the community,” he said.