Is the Transfer Station Marblehead’s next big general override?
With town finances being top of mind for most Marblehead residents the looming overrides on this year’s ballot tend to be the focus of most conversations. However, there may be another override appearing on the horizon that has slipped under the radar that could pour gasoline on this financial fire. This one relates to everyone’s favorite financial debacle, the Transfer Station.
In spring of 2022 the Board of Health and Transfer Station Committee were tasked with how to proceed with the remaining portion of this troubled project to finally bring it to completion. The completion primarily focuses on the transfer station building with two separate designs being brought before the board. The first design closely resembled the one originally sold to the town not once but twice. This design was described by Health Director Andrew Petty as “future proofing” the Transfer Station for regulations coming from MassDEP. In fact, a similar design was presented at the 2015 town meeting and was sold to the residents under the premise that this design would keep the transfer station “generating revenue.” The big obstacle with keeping this original design, which again we already paid for twice, is that the Board of Health would have to ask for an additional $5-6 million. This would be a tough pill for most residents to swallow seeing as it would be the 3rd request for a project that was clearly mismanaged and has very little transparency as to what went wrong. The second design was merely a facelift to the pit and a small office building for the workers. The belief is that this second design could be completed with existing funds in the Board of Health revolving fund. The board and committee voted to move forward with the second design.
One thing that wasn’t included in this discussion was an accurate assessment of the financial benefits and consequences of each design. With landfill space in Massachusetts dwindling the MassDEP is moving in a direction to max out recycling capabilities. In this case we aren’t just talking bottles, paper, and cardboard but also construction and demolition materials. The future for Massachusetts appears to be two types of transfer stations in this respect. Ones that have a sorting floor for these construction and demolition materials and the ones that don’t. Now to be clear, the original design sold to the town in 2011 and 2015 had the sorting floor included, as did the first design presented last spring to the board and committee. As pointed out though the board went with a design that does not have a sorting floor and we are already starting to see the consequences that this design has.
November 2022 some of our favorite local contractors started suddenly being turned away from our own transfer station to be sent to a transfer station in Peabody that has one of these sorting floors. Now right off that hop we have money that would have been going to Marblehead now going to Peabody. In addition to that though residents in town doing work on their home will likely see increased bills for these services to include the travel time to dispose of old materials. In conversations I had with MassDEP these regulations look to only increase and with the design the board is moving forward with the future of our transfer station looks to be one that would no longer accept contractors all together.
What are the financial consequences of this? At the recent joint meeting between the Finance Committee and the Board of Health our Health Director pointed out that the cost of collection and disposal for our town is roughly $1.5 million annually. In addition, he noted how lucky we are that we have a revolving fund to offset this cost for the residents as we take in roughly $1 million in revenue from commercial materials. He also made note that our costs are expected to increase about $500,000 annually when our contract with JRM ends in 2026. It appears that without the sorting floor we are already losing much of this critical offsetting revenue and could be in danger of losing more of it in the future as our costs will increase.
If this revenue is lost and we are already at our financial cliff, how would we cover the costs of our trash / recycling collection as well as the basic operation of our transfer station in the future? Sticker revenue for 2022 came in at under $300,000 so clearly that wouldn’t cover it unless there was a monumental increase which would likely accelerate the declining sticker sales we currently see. This has all the earmarks of a future general override.
Construction on the completion of the transfer station with the design chosen has not started and no contracts appear to have been signed. Therefore, I believe there is still time to pause, be completely transparent with Marblehead residents on how this all went wrong, and to let the residents decide how to proceed with the completion of the project. Marblehead residents were sold on an idea of a “future proofing / revenue generating” transfer station more than once and we agreed to front the costs. The Marblehead residents should therefore be provided with full transparency and a chance to decide how we move forward. At town meeting I hope you will join me in asking for this from the Health Director and Board of Health during their updates.