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.

Walking With the Homeless

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

Last Wednesday night I walked the streets of New Bedford, bundled in more layers of clothing than I ever wore while working outdoors on fisheries projects in Alaska. The air temperature had plummeted to the low 20s, and the wind chill was bitter for the start of the 2014 Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count, conducted in communities throughout the United States. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the number of persons experiencing homelessness (whether sheltered or unsheltered) to be annually counted, and briefly surveyed if possible. Urban Initiative project manager Colleen Dawicki, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, and I joined more than forty other volunteers who fanned out across New Bedford on January 29-30 to conduct the annual 24-hour count. Carrying clipboards, survey sheets, and backpacks full of warm socks, hats, and canned food, we left our headquarters at the Sister Rose House on Eighth Street, and began to walk the blocks from County Street east toward the downtown district.

Last year in New Bedford, volunteers found 338 homeless persons, 119 of whom were in unsheltered conditions. That number seems likely to rise when all the data are assessed for 2014.

As we walked, Colleen, Katya and I asked passersby whether they had secured housing for the evening. Some people who, judging by their clothes and behavior, seemed likely to be housed – perhaps even likely to own a home – turned out not to have any place to stay that night. I conducted my first interview on Union Street with a young man who I thought was probably an undergraduate student at the downtown Star Store campus of UMass Dartmouth. As I introduced myself to him, I thought I was merely going to get some practice in asking a stranger whether he had housing for the night. I didn’t really expect him to tell me he was homeless, but he did, and I reached for my pencil and a survey form. Like most of the homeless people our group spoke with, the young man was cordial, well-spoken, and willing to be interviewed so that community organizers and government officials might gain a greater awareness and understanding of homelessness in America. We offered him, and the many others we met that night, the contents of our backpacks and a “Street Sheet” brochure, produced by the Homeless Service Providers’ Network, that described available support services.

We wished each individual well and moved on, seeking the next interview, which was never long in coming. As researchers, we were conflicted: was it “good” that we were interviewing so many people and gathering so much information… or was it bad for New Bedford, and the nation, that on a bitterly cold winter night we walked among so many homeless persons, many of whom reported educational attainments or life experiences not dissimilar to our own.

After a few hours, I walked back up the hill toward my comfortable home, while the homeless walked toward an emergency shelter, a church hall, a friend’s apartment with a sofa to lie on, or perhaps a pile of blankets under a bridge.

This Space For Rent

Mike McCarthy, Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

When collecting data for our new Rental Housing indicator page, I was surprised to be learn that in Fall River and New Bedford, the majority of households are renter-occupied. A renter myself, I had always figured we were in the minority. The population of these cities, by my own assessment, is mostly made up of working class families striving to achieve the American Dream. Home-ownership as long been considered a cornerstone of the American Dream, and – although this type of talk is rare since the housing bust – we’ve long been told that homes help you build equity, they are long-term investments, and owning one will always be a good idea; this has been the overwhelming consensus among Americans since the Nuclear Family introduced us to the pleasures of suburban home ownership in the 1950s, homesteading for the modern age.

In the wake of a housing crisis, which according a survey conducted by the MacArthur Foundation the American public is not ready to declare over, there has been a growing chorus calling for a reexamination of the value Americans place on owning a home. One of the more interesting studies on the topic was published this year by economists David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, entitled Does High Home-Ownership Impair the Labor Market? In the paper, the authors propose that we not only reevaluate our views on home-ownership, but also we begin to consider the increasing need for a mobile labor market in America. Although their research focuses exclusively on the United States, when complying data for the paper the authors came across similar studies being conducted across the industrialized world. By comparing notes with colleagues, they were able to determine “that there is a strong positive correlation across the wealthy countries between their home-ownership rates and the latest unemployment rates.” In Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 20% (one of the highest in the Western world), 80% of the population are home-owners. While Switzerland has only a 3% unemployment rate and a 30% home-ownership rate.

Blanchflower and Oswald are careful not to suggest that home-owners are disproportionately unemployed, but rather they imply that areas with high levels of home-ownership are less flexible to ever changing job market and the less stable conditions under which Americans are currently finding employment; more employers are demanding more mobility from their workers, and factories and jobs, when not moving overseas, are moving to areas of the country that are more favorable to product, so it would behoove employees to choose housing that does not limit their ability to go where the jobs are. In Oswald and Blanchflower’s America, your mortgage may be a leash too short to allow you to reach the next dog bone.

The conclusions Oswald and Blanchflower draw are consistent with those found by the MacArthur Foundation’s survey. According to the responses from focus groups conducted in 10 major cities across the country, as well as thousands of phone interviews:

 Americans recognize that we are a changing society that is more mobile than ever before. Three in four (75%) believe that moving to a new city or state for a job is more likely now than it was in the past, and 66% believe that people are less likely to raise a family in the same community in which they grew up. Consistent with growing concerns about the risks associated with home-ownership and the increasing mobility of the public, 72% of Americans believe that renting a home after age 30 is more likely today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

This gave me hope for New Bedford and Fall River, because low home-ownership rates do not  mean that our area has lost touch with the American Dream, it means that we are on track with the new emerging American ideal. Our resident-renters are not tied to the SouthCoast by their homes; they can leave the area in search of better prospects. On the inverse, our area is better prepared to absorb an influx of new residents as more jobs come to the area (perhaps in the form of an off-shore wind staging facility or a rail connection that makes the SouthCoast a feasible residence for young professionals working in the Hub?). Moreover, as more studies are conducted and demographics begin to shift further away from home-ownership, government agencies will need to respond by adjusting housing policy to reflect the alterations in the American housing landscape. This will be necessary since, as the MacArthur survey reported, “while roughly 35 percent of Americans rent and the other 65 percent own, the federal government spends approximately three times as much to support home-ownership as it does to support renting.”

The High Value of Urban Trees

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Asst., Urban Initiative

Last summer, for this blog, I wrote a post titled “Death of an Urban Tree,” in which I documented the loss of a spindly, municipal Norway maple formerly located beside my house in New Bedford. Although the little tree was too damaged and decayed to salvage, and had to be cut down, I took comfort in the fact that another large, healthy maple still stood proudly on my corner. However, last winter’s winds added a grim coda to the story, as one-third of the big tree came crashing down during the February 2013 nor’easter (also known as Winter Storm Nemo), completely blocking the intersection in both directions.

It comes as no surprise to me, therefore, that researcher David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service says that the number of trees in 17 out of 20 U.S. cities that he surveyed is declining. Tree populations in two of the three remaining cities Nowak studied showed no change. Only Syracuse, N.Y. increased its tree population, and I suspect that Syracuse showed an increase only because David Nowak, tireless advocate for urban trees, happens to live there.

Nowak estimates the U.S. annually loses four million urban trees. “Trees provide multiple environmental and health benefits,” says Nowak, who provides substantial evidence to back up his additional claim that cities derive important economic benefits from increasing the number of urban trees, each of which provides significant environmental services.

Nowak has created i-Tree, a free web-based tool that helps urban planners assess and improve their urban forests, thus gaining benefits for their communities. Using i-Tree, Pittsburgh, PA decided to treat its trees like any other asset. The city measured the value of its trees in cold, hard cash, and estimated that the trees provide benefits of $2.4 million per year by filtering air and water, sequestering carbon, providing habitat and shade, reducing the urban heat-island effect, increasing property values, and buffering storms. Pittsburgh agreed with Nowak that the city would receive $3 in benefits for every dollar invested in street trees, and promptly developed a master plan to preserve and expand its urban forest during the next two decades.

Closer to home, the Fall River Herald-News reports that Fall River is carrying out an ambitious urban tree farm initiative. The Fall River Street Tree Planting Program is a directed effort to grow trees on a formerly abandoned parcel of city property for distribution to the neighborhoods. Currently 240 trees are being raised. The goal is to have 315 trees and utilize a three-year cycle that annually moves 105 trees out for replanting throughout the city. Students from YouthBuild Fall River have worked tirelessly on the nursery grounds, with seed money for the project provided by a Cities of Service grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Urban forestry is likely to play an increasing role in years to come, given that 80% of the population lives in urban areas. “We tend to focus on cars and roads and development,” says David Nowak, “but in the background is always nature, that also affects people’s lives… Once you have the information, you have to get it in front of the policymakers – the people who have the power to make decisions and affect change. That is the biggest challenge.”

Job opportunity with The Trustees of Reservations (New Bedford)

Superintendent, Alan C. Haskell Park – The Trustees of Reservations

TTOR recently acquired the site of the now-defunct Haskell nursery in New Bedford’s North End, and they’re looking to hire a superintendent who can plan for and manage its development into a park. Prospective candidates should have a Bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject area and experience recruiting and managing staff and volunteers. Full job description here.

Grant opportunities: child obesity, environmental initiatives

1) Active Schools Acceleration Project (ASAP) seeks applicants from K-12 schools combating child obesity

ASAP, an initiative of ChildObesity180,  will award $1,000 grants to one thousand schools to implement one of three ASAP signature programs: 100 Mile Club (students are challenged to walk 100 miles over the course of one school year), BOKS (a 12-week program to engage students in physical activity before the school day), or Just Move (a classroom-based exercise program that integrates academics). Application deadline is April 22; to learn more or apply, click here.

2) Ray C. Anderson Foundation environmental grants program

Through its Gray Notes Grants program, the foundation will award grants of $2,000-$25,000 for projects related to: environmental conservation, preservation, education, and restoration; urban agriculture; clean water/air; and grassroots efforts aimed at promoting collaboration and engagement. Grants are awarded on a rolling basis. To learn more, click here.

Fall River votes to adopt Community Preservation Act

In an unprecedented move, Fall River voters elected to levy a 1.5% tax surcharge that will allow the city to raise local and state revenue that can be used for projects related to historic preservation, open space, recreation, and affordable housing. Why is this unprecedented? Because Fall River is the only Gateway City (well, with the exception of Westfield if you’re using the state definition of those cities) to have adopted the CPA, and that’s likely due to significant challenges (both political and logistical) of passing any tax increase or surcharge in cities where tax rates are already perceived to be high.

One thing that may have helped Fall River is the recent change to the CPA legislation, which reduced the minimum required surcharge to 1%. But it looks like good old fashioned campaigning helped, too. Fall River CPA supporters took their message to neighborhood associations, the Herald News opinion pages, and a website that provides clear, concise answers to the questions and issues generally raised about the CPA. And as one of the initiative’s lead organizers, Al Lima, recently told the Urban Initiative, vision had a lot to do with it. By articulating to even recalcitrant neighborhood groups the ways in which CPA funds could be used to beautify their own communities, they were able to convert many voters.

So what’s next? Passing the CPA is just the beginning; now that the revenue collection mechanism is in place, plans must be made for using those funds for city projects. At least 10% of annual revenue must be used or set aside for each of these three categories: open space & recreation, historic preservation, and affordable housing. Decisions will be made by the city’s Community Preservation Committee, the makeup of which is outlined on the city’s CPA advocacy website.

We look forward to seeing what great projects come out of Fall River via the CPA, and we also look forward to seeing if any other Gateway Cities follow in Fall River’s example!

Sea level rise + storm surge = trouble for cities

Jason’s thoughtful post on coastal development reminded me of a startling image I saw this summer: a map overlay showing how projected sea level rise, coupled with the kind of tide/storm surge combo we saw with Hurricane Sandy, will claim entire chunks of our communities.

For example, there is a 1 in 6 chance that these factors will combine to result in a one-foot sea level increase by 2020 in Woods Hole, MA. What does that mean for nearby New Bedford? It means that the city’s peninsula will become a temporary island, and landmarks like Fort Taber, New England Demolition and Salvage, Popes Island, and other near-coastal properties would be subject to flooding in such an event. Across the river, Fairhaven’s Sconticut Neck becomes a pair of islands.

Projections made by NOAA, USGS, the US Census, and USFWS show that this scenario would impact 2,830 New Bedford homes and 6,178 residents. This is the kind of impact that should make us all sit up and take notice.

Meanwhile, though Fall River’s waterfront may envy New Bedford’s relative proximity to the open ocean, the city will fare far better in this kind of event. If the same scenario played out, Fall River would emerge relatively unscathed because of its situation far up the Taunton River. There would be no impact on city residents or houses, and even a sea level rise of 10 feet would affect fewer than 1 percent of city residents or houses.

Want to see this all for yourself? Visit http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/.

Environmental education grants

Here are a two grant opportunities we recently came across that look like promising opportunities for many of our readers and community partners:

1) National Environmental Education Foundation Announces America’s Great Outdoors: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors Grant Program

Through this new program, NEEF and its partners seek to catalyze efforts to increase the number of pre-K-12 youth, particularly urban and/or underserved youth, who build a connection with public lands as places for recreating, learning and volunteering. Proposed projects should maximize hands-on outdoor engagement opportunities on public lands, focused on the areas of 1) education; 2) recreation ; and 3) environmental stewardship.

To be eligible, applicants must be a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management unit or a nonprofit organization, academic institution, or tribal group that partners with these agencies. Applicants must have been in existence for at least two years. The proposed youth engagement events must be held on a Forest Service or BLM site, or show that the project clearly benefits these agencies.

Approximately $243,000 in funding is available to support awards in the range of $2,500 to $20,000. There is a minimum one-to-one non-federal match required for this grant, though larger match ratios are encouraged.

2) New England Environmental Education Alliance accepting proposals for EPA sub-grants

In partnership with the six state-based professional environmental education associations that comprise the alliance, NEEEA is soliciting proposals and will award sub-grants to organizations for projects that contribute to regional goals for environmental literacy and education in New England, while supporting the EPA’s educational and environmental priorities. In order to achieve the longest lasting and greatest systemic impact, NEEEA will place higher priority on funding proposals that help strengthen statewide or regional capacity to deliver effective environmental education programs.

Proposals may be submitted by any school, nature center, museum, learning center, or community group; local education agency, college, or university; state education or environmental agency; or non-commercial educational broadcasting entity as defined and licensed by the FCC. Applicant organizations must be based in New England and the majority of their activities must take place in New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

At least nineteen grants will be awarded, with a goal of three for each state, as well as at least one for a project that is implemented in multiple states. Grant requests from $500 to $5,000 will be considered. At least 33 percent of the grant amount must be matched by non-federal funds, including in-kind contributions.

Link to Complete RFP