Saturday, February 27, 2010

A "No Brainer"

Since May of 2008, when city government first proposed an increase in the trash tax, I have been interviewed several times by the young people who work in our local media on the topic of metered trash. Twice the PAYT (Pay-As-You-Throw) conversation ended with the reporter asking exactly this same question, “Isn’t this a no brainer?”

You’d think.

Maybe if you are of a certain age. Maybe if you’ve lived anywhere besides here.

Metered utilities are a way of life in America. Metered trash was new in the 1990’s. Now it is ubiquitous. Bloomington and East Lansing. Delphi and Crawfordsville. My aged mother slaps stickers on trash bags for her commercial trash hauler. You know the reasons for this trend. Environmental sustainability. Equity. Economic stability.

We do need the money. West Lafayette hasn’t raised trash rates since 1993. The 2010 City Sanitation budget is $985,926. In 2010, only $520,000 of that will come from trash collection fees. The net cash decrease in the cash balance of the City Wastewater Utility, which pays for everything from street sweepers to the Mayor and Clerk Treasurer’s salary (I bet you didn’t know that; it helps balance the General Fund.), is $2,770,000. Can you imagine the Republican histrionics if a Democratic mayor had gone that far into past Republican mayors capital reserves with the sewage treatment plant already at 90% of capacity?

The changes proposed in this final draft of the ordinance (which appears upper right) are very modest.

We will have not metered trash, but tiers of trash service. Forget your electric bill. Think about your cable bill. The extra bag and bulk rate fees are our version of cable’s “On Demand”.

The response to these changes is generally disproportionate to the changes made.

Maybe it's the times. Change is menacing. Many things are changing. Change feels like criticism. So change makes us angry. Cultural resentment is marketed as the antidote to change.

We have seen this before in West Lafayette.

Metered trash is now being proposed by “you people” as we’re called. We are “foreigners” who came to work here but were not born here and so may not stay here. “You people” probably voted for Obama. “You people” actually believe the Environmental Protection Agency and perhaps even in global warming. “You people” want healthcare reform, and you have gay friends. “You people” dared to whine about losing your Purdue pension benefits. “You people” don’t like the J&C's editorial cartoons.

We are a lot like “those people” who used the phrase “highest and best use” in support of the Wabash Landing project, when local business and the free market should have been encouraged to store portable toilets on that old Sears levee lot. “Their” sewage treatment plant was going to be too big and included a frivolous and expensive and experimental digester project. “Their” smoking ban would drive the bar owners out of business. Now “our” metered trash proposal will create a dumping nightmare that has occurred nowhere else.

I suspect the “town” will win eventually prevail in West Lafayette. This has as much to do with changes in the academy as it does with continued annexation. The academic enterprise is now exactly that. No need for a “gown”. We will segregate by income and ideology. After all, why should I, one of “those people”, stay here? Our house has been egged. We get hate mail.

But we can’t just keep doing what we’re doing. We can’t just keep throwing everything out. It’s bad for the environment. It costs too much. More “education”? Pedagogy eventually hits this ugly wall. Only short-term personal and financial interests drive public policy. To change behavior, we need to raise the cost of the behavior.

I suppose I am one of “those people” for raising ecology and equity as public issues. My window washer father would get a good laugh out of that. His was that “greatest generation”. Dad said that he did hard things for everybody, for the whole world, and for the kids. “Pete” could intuit a long-term benefit. One risks at least ridicule now to use a phrase like “social dividend” in public discourse. But I’ll take the risk.

We have to change how we handle our waste for the sake of future generations. This small, metered trash proposal is a no brainer.

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