Atlas Twp. board votes against trash assessment increase

ATLAS TWP. — Responding to residents’ objections, the Atlas Township Board of Trustees has voted against a proposed rate increase for trash collection which would have facilitated a change in vendors.

By a vote of 3-2, the board on Monday rejected a plan to boost the trash assessment to an amount not to exceed $194 per year per improved parcel. The rate hike would have been a $69 increase over the current rate of $125 for services provided by Emterra Environmental.

Treasurer Ann Marie Moore and Trustees Barry June and Patrick Major voted against the rate hike following a public hearing during which residents voiced objections to the cost, the possibility of using large, rolling bins and the potential for a lawsuit.

“I see nothing wrong with current service,” resident Rose Szwed said. “I think they do an excellent job. I want to know why are we spending the time, energy and studies to fix something that isn’t broken.”

But township employees have said the current system is broken. Every week, they field a flood of calls from residents complaining that their garbage wasn’t picked up, they have said.

Township Supervisor Shirley Kautman-Jones said the call volume has been “extremely difficult” for the office staff.

“We’ve had points … where we couldn’t do anything but answer the telephone,” she said. “That’s what brings us here.”

Clerk Katie Vick echoed Kautman-Jones’ remarks regarding the call volume. She noted that the problems peaked during a six-week period at the height of the pandemic.

“It’s not just about six weeks of interrupted service over COVID,” Vick said. “That’s a huge driving factor, the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the amount of resources it’s taking away from our staff is not something to shy away from.”

The township receives multiple calls every week, Vick said.

“This is a way to alleviate the problem,” she said.

Resident and former Supervisor Tere Onica said much of the problem with missed trash collection likely stemmed from staff shortages coupled with an increase in waste volume due to the pandemic.

“There’s not a company out there that doesn’t have complaints,” she said. “Through the pandemic, everybody stayed home. People cleaned out their closets and garages (resulting in more trash at the curbs). That was reported by all waste haulers everywhere. They did their best to pick it up and there was no cost increase to the residents during this time that all this excess garbage was put out. They bucked up and did what they could to service the community.”

Onica said switching vendors would be unfair to Emterra, and could open up the township to a lawsuit.

“That risk is always out there,” said township attorney David Lattie.

Atlas Township currently is in the second year of a 10-year extension to the contract with Emterra. The township could argue that Emterra was in breach of contract based on missed collections, but Emterra would be entitled to claim that terminating the contract was unlawful, he said.

Prior to casting his vote against the increase, Major pointed out that “there’s no way to know we will have any improvement.”

“Why would we want to pay 60 percent more when we have no guarantee the new company is going to be better than the current company?” he said.

“I don’t know why we’re here,” Major commented. “I don’t understand it. It’s beyond my comprehension. I think it’s the wrong thing to do and I think it opens the door to a lawsuit.”

June agreed, and noted that he felt the township has not done its due diligence in rectifying the situation. He said the township should have given Emterra written notice and met with company officers to devise a plan for corrective actions.

“Everybody has had their issues,” June said. “No matter who you have, there’s going to be an issue. I don’t think we’ve had enough complaints, based on the number of stops we’ve had, to make a change. I don’t think a 60 percent increase for no guarantee of improved service is a good deal.”

Moore said her vote hinged on the comments from the residents who spoke during the hearing.

“With everything that has taken place, and everything I’ve seen and heard and know, it’s difficult for me,” Moore said. “But, knowing how strong the residents have come to let their voices be heard, I’m not in favor of raising the special assessment. It’s just something I cannot do.”