Chestertown’s curbside recycling program will continue.
Some 70 residents – described by Mayor Chris Cerino as an “unprecedented” crowd – filled the second floor of Town Hall for a public hearing on the town’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Monday, June 3. Following the hearing, the council voted unanimously to pass a budget with a $0.01 increase in the property tax, to $0.43 per $100 assessed value. The $4,038,364 budget includes no raises for town staff, but does not cut any positions. A draft presented at the public hearing showed an excess of revenues over expenditures of $57,491 – though surplus that will probably change during final adjustments.
The recycling program, which was on the chopping block in the draft budget, will be retained after an offer by Ford Schumann of Infinity Recycling to hold down costs and a proposal by Town Manager Bill Ingersoll to move money from an underused insurance pool to cover the remaining costs. The council authorized Ingersoll to make the adjustment so recycling could continue.
“I met with our management and we tried to figure out some way we could save some money,” Schumann said. “It’s not a great year for recycling – it hasn’t been for probably five years, but it’s gotten really bad this last couple of years. So it’s hard for us to take any hit.” He said that Chestertown represents about a quarter of the company’s revenue. He offered the town a plan by which instead of charging for each household taking part in the program, Infinity would charge a flat rate for the town as a whole, as it does for a few smaller towns. He said it would save the town about $6,000. He also offered not to charge set-up fees for one year. “That’s a nice part of our revenue,” he said. “I think this proposal is as fair as it could be,” he said.
Darren Tilghman of the Environmental Committee spoke at the meeting, saying the committee’s concern for the town’s future as a sustainable community would be endangered if recycling is discontinued. She put forward the committee’s proposal to collect trash once a week instead of twice, as well as a proposal to set up a dedicated solid waste enterprise fund to cover recycling. She said the environmental committee would be willing to do some of the footwork needed to set up such a fund. She noted that reducing recycling would lead to higher volumes of regular trash, increasing the town’s payments for tipping fees. Infinity employs special needs workers from Kent Center and the Benedictine School, providing an additional benefit to the community, Tilghman said.
Tilghman urged residents to attend the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting the following evening to support the town’s request for a tax rebate to compensate for services the county doesn’t provide within town limits, such as police protection, street repair, and planning/zoning. She recommended asking the commissioners for an efficiency study of county government, suggesting that there is “a tremendous amount of unspent and mis-spent money in our county budget,” which could go to fully fund the county schools’ budget in addition to compensating the towns for duplicate services.
Robert Ortiz asked whether the council could implement the Environmental Committee’s proposal to reduce trash collection to once a week to finance recycling. Cerino said he had asked the town’s trash collecting service about the option, as well as asking Schumann whether recycling could be done every other week. He said the contractors told him it wouldn’t lead to a significant saving: “It’s basically the same amount of work for us, it’s just in a different time frame,” they said. The trucks would still be running the same amount and picking up the same volume, Cerino said they told him. “The $25,000 to $50,000 saving that’s been thrown about, that was not verified by our provider,” he said. “That would have been a great solution that I would have gotten behind.”
Ortiz then said that the Pam Ortiz Band, in which he and his wife play, had given a number of fundraising concerts last year, raising some $18,000 for several different causes. He said he would be happy to repeat the concerts this year, donating the proceeds to continuing the recycling program. The next morning, after learning that the program would be continued, he sent an email saying he would explore ways to support it, possibly by raising funds to underwrite Infinity’s employment of workers from Kent Center and the Benedictine School.
Cerino began the public hearing by offering a summary of the forces that have affected the town’s budget to the point where last year’s tax raise and this year’s decision to cut recycling became necessary. He cited seven factors: a rise in expenses combined with flat revenues; the purchase of the marina; the loss of a grant in aid from Kent County to cover tipping fees for trash; the purchase of the new police station; the deferral of taxes as part of the Enterprise Zone; a $20 million drop in the tax base over the last year; and the lack of a tax differential or payment for duplicate services from the county. Cerino went into detail on each of the issues, noting that the purchases of the marina and police station and the establishment of the Enterprise Zone were both necessary and beneficial to the town in the long run. As for the loss of payments from the county, he said, “I’m not blaming our budget problems on Kent County, but they could really help.”
Cerino also broke down the individual categories of the budget. Public safety accounts for 43%; public works 29%; general government 14%; debt service and capital expenditures 4% each; and the visitor center/tourism, economic development and parks and recreation 2% each. “There’s very little fat in the budget,” he said.
As far as the recycling program, which almost the entire audience indicated by show of hands that they had come to the meeting to protest the end of, Cerino began by lifting up a green recycling bin, noting that it said on the side, “Kent County Recycles.” He gave a history of the program, pointing out that the town contracted with Infinity for curbside pickup 9 years ago, when the county discontinued its curbside program due to a budget crisis. “I love recycling, I don’t want to cut it,” he said. But with the town’s budget strictures, he said, it had become necessary to “find a line item that’s not a salary and cut it.”
After his budget summary, Cerino opened the floor to questions and comments from the audience. Several residents spoke in addition to Schumann, Tilghman and Ortiz, all in favor of retaining the recycling program. Clerk of the Court Mark Mumford praised Schumann’s 30 years of work to bring recycling to the county, beginning with a fight against a proposal to set up an incinerator near Millington. He asked what it would cost individual households to have recycling picked up on a private basis. Schumann said it would cost $8 to $10 per month for weekly pickup.
The budget hearing closed after one hour, and all but a handful of the audience left before the regular council meeting, at which the council adopted the budget.
Also at the regular meeting, the council heard a presentation by the Recreation Committee for a playground at Wilmer Park, along with a bid opening for street repairs to Queen Street between Maple Avenue and High Street. A full report on those and other issues discussed at the meeting will be published later this week.