:: APRIL 14, 2004
‘cool’ city proposes a reduction in recycling
Budget cuts threaten a progressive program
Imagine being outside on your patio this summer, sipping lemonade and
perhaps grilling some shish kebab. Smoke drifts over from your neighbors’
yard. Perhaps they’re grilling shish kebab, too? No, it’s
just the smell of burning compost.
If Lansing City Council approves its 2004-’05 proposed recycling
budget cuts, homeowners will need to think of new ways to get rid of
their grass and garden clippings this summer. The budget, which will
be discussed in a series of public meetings, proposes 13 fewer weeks
of curbside compost pickup, and the elimination of seven full-time recycling
staff positions, including at least four drivers and the recycling coordinator.
Curbside pickup of grass, leaves and tree trimmings would halt from
June 15 through Sept. 15.
The city also proposes raising the annual recycling fee from $52.50
to $60 this year, with an additional increase to $62.50 in 2005.
Matt Flechter, recycling and composting coordinator for the state Department
of Environmental Quality, said the move would result in an increase
in the illegal disposal of yard clippings.
But an even more troubling problem, said Flechter, who also chairs the
Mayor’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Recycling, is the elimination
of the Lansing recycling coordinator’s post.
The City of Lansing has scheduled
public hearings on the proposed 2004-’05 budget for:
•April 19: 7 p.m., City Hall
•April 28: 7 p.m., Foster Community Center
•May 3: 7 p.m., City Hall
•May 10: 7 p.m., City Hall
City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget on May 17.
would no longer have a program or budget for educating residents, Flechter
wrote in an e-mail: “In fact, Lansing will be doing just the opposite
by cutting staff that could be educating residents about the change
Kerrin O’Brien, who served on the recycling advisory committee
from 1997 to 2001, said one reason she chose to stay in Lansing was
the city’s recycling program, which she described as second only
to Ann Arbor’s. “We’re providing services that help
improve people’s quality of life,” she said.
The nonprofit consultant said that cutting the recycling budget would
undermine Lansing’s efforts to become a “cool city,”
making reference to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s revitalization effort
to attract more young professionals to the state.
By emphasizing the need for budget cuts, the city runs the risk of portraying
recycling as an expensive burden on the city. This would undermine a
more-than-decade-long effort to promote the opposite — recycling
as a way to protect the environment, promote sustainability and save
Established in 1990 with a $2,282,554 grant from the state of Michigan,
Flechter said that Lansing’s program was one of the first in the
nation to provide volume-based pricing: “If I put my newspaper
in the trash, I pay to dispose of it. If I recycle it, not only am I
doing something good for the environment, I’m saving money.”
The more residents recycle, the more they save on their regular garbage
disposal costs. The city’s largest trash cart (95 gallons) costs
$15 per month, for example. But after sorting out metal, paper, cardboard
and plastic for recycling, a family might be able to switch to the smallest
possible container, which cost only $10 per month, or even to blue bags,
which cost $8.75 for a pack of five, and are available at many local
stores. Aside from the cost benefits, when residents recycle they’re
also following the law. The city waste disposal ordinance officially
prohibits yard waste and recyclable materials from being mixed with
Steve Goodwin, a solid waste operator for the city’s Department
of Waste Reduction Services, said most people aren’t aware of
how much they could save by recycling. On his daily route across Lansing,
Goodwin sometimes randomly checks the garbage bins. “I guarantee
that any owner of a large cart could get away with a smaller cart if
they would recycle more. That’s true for every resident in the
Goodwin is a UAW Local 2256 representative who represents five drivers
whose jobs would be eliminated under the proposed new budget. 11 drivers
Lansing residents would most likely see the effects of reducing the
driving staff during the winter months, he thinks, because that’s
when pick-ups take the longest. “There’s going to be stuff
sitting out,” he said, “and we will have to work even more
overtime than we already do.”
While Goodwin criticizes the cutbacks, he’s in favor of increasing
recycling and compost fees, saying that this would reflect increased
costs, and the program would still be less expensive than any other
in the Greater Lansing area.
When asked about the city’s rationale behind the new recycling
budget, the deputy director for Lansing’s Public Service Department,
Bill Bergman, said that the city is trying to raise revenues and prevent
the program from slipping further into the red.
Bergman said the recycling program lost $530,000 last year and is expected
to lose $673,000 this year. To compensate, the proposed budget cuts
would save an estimated $350,000, and the rate increase would generate
an additional $300,000 in revenues.
Bergman said that eliminating the pickup service for yard waste would
only be a small reduction in services, since the largest demand for
composting was during the fall and the spring. Bergman said the recycling
program would probably be able to compensate for the lost full-time
staff jobs by hiring more seasonal employees. “They’ll be
able to move back and forth from composting to street maintenance activities,”
And the seven full-time employees wouldn’t be laid off, he assured.
The city would help them find positions in other departments.
Goodwin opposes hiring more seasonal employees. “I can tell you
that the union will not stand for the idea of bringing new seasonal
employees in, to do work you’ve just removed full-timers from.
Seasonal workers are cheaper. You’ve just eliminated paying someone
Goodwin said he plans to speak up against the budget cuts, despite already
facing internal pressure to keep quiet.
City Council has scheduled a series of public hearings in April and
May, to discuss Lansing’s $109.6 million fiscal plan for 2004-‘05.
The Council will vote on the budget at 7 p.m., May 17.
Another member of the recycling Advisory Committee, Nancy Norton, plans
to complain about the downsizing. “It’s terrible. We need
to have more people coordinating recycling in Lansing, not to cut back,”
she said. She said that she’s particularly troubled about Lansing
Mayor Tony Benavides’ plan to remove the recycling coordinator,
Steve Chalker, a man “very committed” to increasing the
number of residents who recycle.
This would have never have happened under the administration of former
Mayor David Hollister, Norton argued, saying that she suspects recycling
is not as high on Benavides’ list of priorities.
The travel agent suggested that if the city really wanted to reduce
costs, they should eliminate their $150,000 public relations contract
with Kolt & Serkaian Communications. Benavides has proposed reducing
it by 15 percent.
O’Brien, who is also a member of Mid-Michigan Environmental Action
Council, questioned whether there was a hidden agenda behind the restructuring.
She said that she suspects one or more City Council members may be on
the side of private waste disposal firms and are trying to give them
more business. The city already contracts with the Granger and Friedland
O’Brien said that during her term on the recycling advisory committee,
she suggested establishing drop-off sites to compliement the pick-up
program. This would allow the city to resell some of its recyclables,
such as mulch, rather than having to pay for their disposal.
She said the city’s recycling coordinator picked up on her idea
and presented a “wonderful plan” to enhance the existing
recycling program and partner with other area programs. But none of
his ideas were ever set into action. O’Brien thinks this has to
do with City Council’s not supporting recycling. “I think
Steve has hit the wall so many times that he’s not even coming
up with new ideas anymore, because he knows they’re going to get
O’Brien said the Lansing recycling program was being made to bear
the burden of the City Council’s own mistake three years ago.
Rather than moderately increasing the recycling fee to match inflation,
in 2002 the Council reduced the fee from $57.50 to $52.50. “The
City Council shot itself in the foot by reducing those fees. So they’re
not willing to go all the way and really fund the program as it stands,
because of the bad decision they made.”
One consequence of this “political posturing,” O’Brien
said, is that Lansing residents aren’t informed about the benefits
of a strong public recycling program. This lack of support on the part
of City Council and the mayor’s office has made it increasingly
difficult to get more people involved.
When asked whether the city’s proposed budget cuts were part of
a broader plan to downsize or even privatize the recycling program,
Bergman said the city has no such intentions. He said that he welcomes
plans to make the recycling program more profitable, including plans
to establish a drop-off site for grass clippings. “Those ideas
have been brainstormed more than ever. They will continue to be discussed
But Bergman said he is concerned that a drop-off site wouldn’t
be cost-efficient, although he doesn’t yet have a concrete estimate
City Councilman Harold Leeman said he opposes cutting the recycling
budget. “We’re sending the wrong message. The younger generation
is for recycling. If we want to have young people stay in Lansing, we
need to offer those services.”
Carol Wood has also expressed disapproval over the recycling budget
Norton said that she and other recycling activists will speak up at
the upcoming meetings.
The recycling committee recently sent two letters to Benavides outlining
ideas for a recycling expansion process as well as a program for general
public education, recycling in schools and the creation of drop-off
Their second letter, which was sent in January 2004, concluded: “With
your guidance and the help of Lansing’s exemplary recycling staff,
the Advisory Committee can provide the input necessary to achieve the
Flechter has said that neither of the two letters has received any response
from the mayor’s office.
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