Friday, May 23, 2008

Sarno and the city's trash fee: doing the right thing in the wrong way..

Domenic Sarno made a number of different promises when he campaigned for mayor of Springfield, MA last fall, but the promise that probably got him the most votes was his promise to eliminate the $90 annual trash fee imposed by Springfield's Control Board.

Well, this year's budget was finally been released, and the $90 trash fee is still a part of the budget-- but Sarno says he intends for the city to move to a "pay as you throw" system.

People are angry, rightly so, but I hope Springfield's residents don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. "Pay as you throw" is a good system, but Sarno has gone about it all wrong. Anger should focus on the process rather than the content of his proposal And we are right to be angry about his broken promises. It's exactly this kind of crap that makes people cynical and and decreases our willingness to engage in civic participation. Here's a link to Sarno's promises at his inaugural address. I think every Springfield resident should read this once a week.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, here are some key steps our mayor could have/should have taken to build support for his idea:
  • Sell the Program to Key Decisionmakers. Begin by gaining the support of local officials. Prepare briefing documents that analyze costs and address potential concerns, and develop a number of program options from which decisionmakers can choose. Once support among key decisionmakers has been established, build community awareness and support for the program.

  • Gather Public Input. Community awareness and support is a key to the ultimate success of PAYT programs. Without public support, a PAYT program has less chance of being accepted. After all, the citizens make the program work by following the rules. Comments should be solicited from the public to help identify misperceptions about the program and reasons for opposition, and to inform program planners of current public opinion. Public meetings also are important for providing an additional avenue for residents to voice their concerns and raise issues.

  • Educate the Public. The final step in the process of building local support for unit-based pricing is to address the public's concerns and misperceptions. Provide program specifics and offer information on waste reduction and recycling. If residents believe the pricing structure is arbitrary and are unaware of ways to reduce their costs, the program is likely to fail.
Sarno may have "sold the program to key decisionmakers" but he certainly has not solicited public input or undertaken any public education. Maybe he intends to take these steps after the fact, but we shall see.

If this program doesn't get the public support it deserves, Sarno has so one to blame but himself.

His approach is unfortunately typical of elected officials.

Here's how he could have played it: hold a series of public hearings on our trash dilemma in different neighborhoods across the city, laying out an honest analysis of budget difficulties and soliciting input on possible solutions. I can guarantee you that at every meeting, at least one person would have proposed the "pay as you throw" system. And he could have built public support from there.

Instead, not only did Sarno not solicit public input, he mystified the entire budget process, refusing to allow City Council to even glimpse the budget, let alone have any say.

Some of the benefits of the "pay as you throw" system:
  • Fairness - each household pays based on its use of solid waste services.
  • Increased Recycling - residents have incentive to recycle.
  • Waste Reduction - consumers become more aware that they can purchase recyclable packaging, avoid excessive packaging and consider alternatives to disposable products.
  • Composting - householders can reduce waste and recycle by practicing home composting, vermicomposting (using worms) and grasscycling (leaving grass clippings on the lawn).
  • "Pay as you throw" systems are already in place in 117 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

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