Summer Intern Work Update: Survey of Elected Officials

Hi! It’s your summer interns: Emma and Ellie!

We are thrilled to announce that we recently completed our survey of elected officials gender, age, race, language, educational attainment, annual income, and geographical location in Fall River and New Bedford. We received our first response today and hope to receive many more in the coming weeks. We expect to be able to share our results with the online community in mid-August, so keep your eyes peeled!

Happy reading!

Trash talk in Fall River & New Bedford

Our Gateway City neighbors to the east and west are shaking things up when it comes to trash collection, resulting in significant changes for Fall River and New Bedford residents this summer. Unless you’re a fan of The Sopranos, it’s hard to find excitement in the topic of solid waste management. Nevertheless, these changes shed light on how these two cities are approaching the kinds of fiscal and public management challenges that are threatening the viability of municipalities nationwide. Below is a primer on each city’s plan and the potential implications thereof.


 

Fall River

What’s happening? Earlier this year, Fall River accepted six proposals from solid waste management contractors to provide the city with trash and recycling services. One of the proposals came from the City of Fall River, which currently provides these services through its Sanitation Division (which strangely offers trolley services for hire as well).

At the end of May 2014, Mayor Will Flanagan announced that his administration had selected Waste Zero as the city’s new vendor, which proposed a unit-based pricing system commonly known as pay-as-you-throw (PAYT). If the City Council approves the proposed budget for FY15, PAYT will begin on August 1.

What’s the reason for this change? The change was precipitated by the impending closure of Fall River’s landfill. According to Herald News reports, Mayor Flanagan, who was once “adamantly opposed” to PAYT, now sees this system as a means for generating $3.5 million that will in turn fund 22 firefighter positions slated for elimination (click here to learn more about that).

What does this mean for residents? Starting on August 1, city residents will be required to place their household trash in special bags that must be purchased at city retailers (the most expensive bag will hold 30 gallons at a cost of $2). It is expected that recycling, which generates revenue for the city, will increase as a result.

What are the benefits of this change?As Mayor Flanagan noted in this article, this shift represents thinking about trash and recycling as a utility for which the customer pays according to use. The MA Department of Environmental Protection states on this PAYT fact sheet that this shift makes PAYT more equitable when compared to a system in which households generating little trash subsidize those disposing of greater quantities. Another benefit is that recycling rates are likely to increase significantly while reducing overall solid waste generated, the latter of which is estimated to save $900,000 per year on landfill costs.

What are the potential challenges with PAYT in Fall River? Enough communities, including cities like Worcester, have implemented PAYT successfully and in a way that dispels the idea that it will lead to problems like illegal dumping. Some cities are concerned that PAYT disproportionately impacts low-income residents, but as this Rappaport Briefing argues, there are options like discounted bags that could be implemented to alleviate any burden.

While PAYT looks like a no-brainer for Fall River, there may be some issues surrounding the management of the transition itself. First, will city employees who currently haul trash and recycling be carrying out the operations of PAYT? Just one month ago, Mayor Flanagan told these employees that privatization was unlikely, but the most recent reports suggest that the program will be managed by Waste Zero. Second, what happens to the significant investment Fall River made to automate its trash and recycling collection? This investment included the purchase of 16 new trucks and compatible carts, all of which cost $7 million.

Finally, PAYT can be perceived as an end-run tax. This is particularly acute in Fall River, where this change was announced just weeks ago and as a way to stave off firefighter cuts. Even MassDEP, which would be expected to remain agnostic on this front, recommends that municipalities make PAYT “revenue neutral, by reducing property taxes or flat fees by the amount that unit-based fees are expected to generate.”


 

New Bedford

What’s happening? Beginning later this month, city residents will scrap (well, hopefully recycle) their personal garbage bins and begin using bins provided by the city that will accommodate a new, automated system of trash and recycling pickup. There’s nothing revolutionary about this–Fall River made the change in 2009, and other SouthCoast municipalities (many of which also contract with ABC Disposal, which is New Bedford’s waste management vendor) are following suit.

What’s the reason for this change? The reasons cited for moving toward automation include cost savings (reportedly $100,000 per year) resulting from increased recycling and reduced landfill costs. However, this article suggests that this estimate is based on New Bedford’s recycling rate doubling, which may or may not transpire. Other anticipated benefits include a reduced amount of trash spilling out of bins and onto city streets, the improved ease of recycling (separating paper and cardboard will no longer be required), and possibly improved measurement and tracking of recycling rates. The last item is not verified, but because bins are equipped with barcodes, this seems like a distinct possibility.

What does this mean for residents? City residents will now put all recyclables into one bin, without needing to sort them, and all trash into another. Single-family homes will have a 65-gallon bin for each, while two-family homes will receive bins that can hold 95 gallons. Bins have the capacity to be picked up from the curb with automated arms connected to the truck, reducing staffing on the trucks and the physical toll on those workers.

What are the benefits of this change? As noted, potential benefits include cost savings of approximately $100,000 per year (depending on resident behavior) and tidier streets.

What are the potential challenges with New Bedford’s new system? First, it seems like the city is paying quite a bit more for waste disposal with the new system (and new contract with ABC Disposal). In FY14, the city spent $4,155,576; in FY15, it is projected to spend $4,560,637. The increase of over $400,000 may reflect one-time costs, but this isn’t entirely clear. Second, the size of the bins (quite large, and the same for trash and recycling) may not actually encourage more recycling, because there is plenty of room for trash–65 gallons, which would cost a Fall River resident over $4 to dispose of. And was the requirement to sort really holding many people back from recycling in the first place? It will be interesting to see that answered, and if that answer is yes, perhaps those projected savings will be realized.

Finally, compared to other cities, New Bedford is a bit behind the times when it comes to single-stream recycling and automated pickup. As more municipalities shift to PAYT, this change may make it harder for New Bedford to do so if the need to cut costs becomes more acute. After all, while bins like these can be used for PAYT, this would require the implementation of a billing system to charge for the trash collected. Other communities have also found that bins in the 60+ gallon range are too large for PAYT.

UI Evaluates Public Housing in Taunton, MA

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant

HOPE VI is a public housing program administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under HOPE VI, severely distressed public housing is demolished and redeveloped into new, mixed-use housing that typically is less densely populated. Attempts are also made to better integrate these new developments into adjacent neighborhoods.

A significant challenge for residents occurs as demolition displaces them into other locations or neighborhoods for, at minimum, the amount of time necessary to demolish the antiquated housing in which they lived, and to construct new housing facilities.

When the HOPE VI process was begun at Fairfax Gardens, a public housing site in Taunton, MA that had become notorious for criminal and drug activity, the Urban Initiative was chosen as the independent evaluator of the redevelopment effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

June 4, 2012: Dilapidated, barracks-style housing at Fairfax Gardens, a few days before demolition.

June 4, 2012: Dilapidated, barracks-style housing at Fairfax Gardens, a few days before demolition.

As part of our evaluation, the Urban Initiative was required by HUD to interview a random selection of twenty-five heads of household who formerly resided at Fairfax Gardens, which was overseen by the Taunton Housing Authority (THA). I interviewed most of these heads of household in 2013 to learn about their displacement and relocation issues, which may include concerns about family relationships, integration of relocated residents into new neighborhoods, employment and income issues, material hardships, health issues, and children’s education.

One year later, I am in the midst of a follow-up round of interviews with the same respondents. My colleague, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, will this year conduct the interviews of Spanish-speaking heads of household.

March 27, 2013: Following demolition and site grading, the first new structures appear on site.

March 27, 2013: Following demolition and site grading, the first new structures appear on site.

Most of the displaced residents were placed by THA in Section 8 housing. This year, many respondents report that they remain in Section 8 apartments. However, there are exceptions: some families have moved back to brand-new units at Fairfax Gardens (now renamed “Bristol Commons”). A few former residents have even successfully transitioned from public to private housing.

While it is too soon to make our data tell the full story of Fairfax Gardens, these photos show the great progress that has been made on the construction site since 2012. It is my hope that this redevelopment effort will result in better outcomes for citizens of Taunton who are challenged by income and housing issues.

April 4, 2014: Residents are returning to well-designed public housing at the renamed "Bristol Commons."

April 4, 2014: Residents are returning to well-designed public housing at the renamed “Bristol Commons.”

MassINC releases report encouraging “transformative investments” for Gateway Cities

Last week, Boston-based think tank MassINC released “Transformative redevelopment: strategic state policy for Gateway City growth and renewal,” a report that recommends new–and big–public investments to spur private development in the state’s smaller industrial cities like Fall River and New Bedford. How big? The price tag on MassINC’s policy recommendations is $1.7 billion, but the authors suggest that this would net a return of $3.4 billion and over 80,000 new jobs.

What would transformative redevelopment look like? One example that comes to mind is New Bedford’s North End, generally defined as the area north of Coggeshall Street extending to Brooklawn Park and bordered by the Acushnet River and Ashley Boulevard. This area has seen a major influx of public dollars through the MassWorks program, which provided $3.2 million to develop a stretch of Acushnet Avenue into an “international marketplace.” This investment has resulted in ongoing improvements to the streetscape, which is anticipated to bolster businesses and residents working and living along this corridor while attracting visitors, new development, and the dollars that both will bring. Will this investment prove “transformative”? It’s not yet apparent, but the recent rehabilitation of several previously vacant mills into loft apartments suggests that the private investment is happening, and if these trends continue, the North End may look and feel like a much different place in the next 10-15 years.

Check out MassINC’s report here, and if you want to continue the exercise of applying the North End’s redevelopment to their concept of transformative redevelopment, check out this video on plans for that neighborhood.