LtE: Seeking Transparency and Communication in Town Government

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On Monday night Town Meeting was asked to approve a request by the Select Board totalling $900k to enable DPW to purchase new rubbish and recycling carts for distribution to all Reading households currently receiving Town collection services. We were informed that the rubbish removal contract that we currently have in place will be expiring in June 2026, and authorizing this purchase in April of 2023 to facilitate distribution to every household by the Fall of 2023 would not only align us with what many other towns are doing, but also would prepare Reading for “possible future automated rubbish and recycling collection in 2026”. In addition, “purchasing these carts now would lessen the financial impact on the Town when the new collection contract is bid in 2026”. This is the language in the Town Warrant. It can be found here.

Town Meeting members were also informed that these new carts would mitigate rodent issues, rainfall accumulation, litter blowing around neighborhoods, or collection delays due to open top containers, as well as “an improvement to the aesthetics of the town on collection days.”

So, for the reasons stated above, the Town asked Town Meeting to vote to authorize the purchase of 7400 64 gallon rubbish carts and 7800 recycling carts, and subsequently distribute one of each to every household in Reading.

The presentation that was shared during Town Meeting highlighted and explained this request in greater detail. You can watch it here.

What Town Meeting also learned through discussion is that this effort will render your current trash containers and recycle carts unusable. When? Not sure-at some point in time that was not communicated to Town Meeting members. And, these carts will be owned by the Town, not by you. So, at some point in time, while you are now able to dispose as much (up to 120 gallons) or as little depending on the needs of your family, you will be limited to one 64 gallon trash cart and one 64 gallon recycle cart- no matter how much you are currently disposing or how many people are in your household.

So, what do you do if you need to throw out more than one 64 gallon container can hold? You can lease an additional Town owned 64 gallon trash cart for an annual fee of $200-250/year, according to the DPW. You also have the option to purchase 30 gallon overflow trash bags from the Town for the cost of $2-3 dollars a bag.

This information prompted a pretty spirited and engaging conversation at Town Meeting. There were Town Meeting Members who asked why we could not purchase our own trash carts and still be compliant with potential automated trash removal services. Some asked why Town Meeting would be asked to vote on something that clearly discriminated against larger families who might need to dispose of more waste. And some were excited and supportive of the Town’s efforts to reduce rubbish disposal. But that doesn’t really matter. Because we were only asked to vote on the purchase of the carts, not the potential policies and cost to residents that would come along with rolling them out.

And the biggest question of all… why now? Why ask for approval to purchase carts in April 2023 to roll out in Fall 2023 that we may or may not need to be compliant for the trash removal contract the Select Board negotiates when we go to bid in June 2026?

The answer to that question is given to us in the Warrant: “purchasing the carts now would lessen the financial impact on the Town when the new collection contract is bid in 2026”. Might it be that the earlier the carts get delivered, the earlier the Town can begin to monetize rubbish collection from residents? Town Meeting learned that there would be no appetite on behalf of the Town to purchase and distribute additional carts for homes that needed them. Leasing was the only option for residents who needed an additional trash cart. The revenue generated from leasing the carts would go towards mitigating the cost of the renewal of the trash contract in 2026, according to Town Staff. Does this mean that rolling the carts out in Fall 2023 would allow an additional period for the Town to collect payment from Reading residents, well before we will go out to bid for contract renewal in 2026? Again, other than being informed that the carts would be delivered to our homes in Fall 2023, we were given no additional information as to when the Town would be switching over to exclusively Town owned rubbish and recycling carts, and what that would potentially mean for Reading residents.

And here is another interesting point. I was informed through another Town Meeting Member that an acronym was mentioned during discussion- RFID. Upon further discovery and research into RFID, might one conclude that the Town issued carts will likely have embedded RFID technology? This would enable the Town to move to a pay as you throw system of rubbish removal. You can read more about RFID Waste Management here.

What strikes me as odd was the lack of transparency and communication to Town Meeting.
Is there a communication breakdown between Town employees and Select Board, or between the members of the Select Board themselves, or both? I’m not sure. But asking Town Meeting for approval on the purchase of the carts because “the train is coming” (according to the Town issued presentation) without further explanation or insight into what that statement means does not create an environment for Town Meeting members to cast their vote based on what would be best for the constituents that they represent.

I understand that other towns are in similar rubbish removal programs. I also understand that we may be restricted option wise when we go to bid in 2026. But the lack of transparency and communication, the lack of context regarding the potential future of Reading’s rubbish and recycling contract, and the rush to purchase and distribute the carts well in advance of the 2026 bid raises a lot of red flags for me.

Fortunately, the $900k spend for the purchase of the carts did not receive a two thirds vote, and was not approved by Town Meeting this time around.

Reading residents are now dealing with increased costs in food, fuel, and now potentially electricity and water rates. We, as Reading residents, should expect transparency and clear communication from our Town Government. Town Meeting Members need full transparency in order to make the decisions that best serve this town. The Town needs to do much more research and present options for rubbish removal contracts to Town Meeting and to the public, and the public should have the opportunity to provide input before sweeping changes are made to our rubbish removal service and costs.

Town Meeting members should not have been put in a situation to vote on a $900k spend without understanding the full implications of that spend. Period.

Nancy Tawadros
Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member

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