A very determined group of Bigfork residents told the Flathead County Solid Waste Board on Monday they will do whatever it takes to keep a green-box refuse site in their community.
“We have people lined up to find a solution,” Bigfork resident Sally Hanger said. “This is about people, not just budgets.”
A strategic report for the county landfill recommends closing both the Bigfork and Lakeside green-box sites and consolidating services into staffed and fenced locations at Somers and Creston. The county has consolidated other outlying sites in recent years, largely to save money and provide safer facilities.
But the consolidations have been controversial as neighbors have pleaded to keep their green boxes in close proximity.
At the Bigfork green boxes, located on land leased from the Montana Department of Transportation along Montana 83, there’s no room to expand, Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty said. Fencing the site would make it that much smaller, he said, and there have been longstanding problems with illegal dumping of hazardous waste and commercial garbage.
A few Lakeside residents also asked the Solid Waste Board to reconsider the plan to close their green-box site. It, too, is located on state land, isn’t staffed or gated and is prone to the same problems as the Bigfork site.
“We do believe there are very valid reasons, including both issues of safety for our customers and employees, along with financial impacts that will be a benefit to all of our ratepayers within the district,” Prunty said in a draft memo he intends to send to the county commissioners.
Consolidating the Bigfork and Lakeside sites and hiring three people to staff the Creston and Somers sites will save the county about $60,000 a year, Prunty said. The Columbia Falls green-box site has been staffed for a couple of years and has become the poster child for consolidation.
“Considerable improvement in operations has occurred at the Columbia Falls site since staffing was implemented, with a reduction in contractor use and the elimination of scavenging and improper wastes being left at the site,” Prunty said.
Leases with the state for both the Bigfork and Lakeside sites were renegotiated last year for another 10 years. The county will pay $2,000 per year per site for the first five years, and then the lease can be re-evaluated by the state.
Paul Mutascio, president of the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, asked the Solid Waste Board to impose a two- or three-year moratorium for closing the Bigfork site to allow citizens to come up with a suitable alternative to consolidation.
The board did act on that request.
“We need to put on our creative hats and look for solutions,” Mutascio said. “What’s the purpose of this meeting if your minds are made up?
The Solid Waste Board plans to hold a meeting in Bigfork in late spring to further discuss the consolidation of that site. Board members seemed to have mixed opinions, though, about whether the Bigfork consolidation is a “done deal.”
“It’s in the strategic plan to close Bigfork,” board member Wayne Miller noted. “In my mind, it’s premature to do so. I’m not prepared to take action until that meeting is held.”
Mutascio told the board Bigfork has a strong tradition of community cooperation and volunteerism that will go a long way in finding an alternative to consolidation.
“Our community knows how to get things done,” he said.
Al Johnson of Bigfork also stressed the fortitude of Bigfork volunteers.
“There’s a talent pool that can solve this problem,” he said. “Closing the site is not efficiency; it’s diminishing public services.”
Using volunteer help on county-owned facilities is difficult, Prunty noted, because of workers’ compensation requirements.
Some residents said they’re willing to pay more to keep their green boxes. Currently every property owner pays an annual $80.73 solid waste assessment that’s used to operate the landfill and green-box sites.
Prunty said while many wouldn’t mind paying a higher fee, just as many wouldn’t want to pay more.
Mutascio said the county’s strategic plan doesn’t take into account the impact to county residents who are forced to haul their trash longer distances.
Bigfork resident Faith Brynie calculated it will cost the 3,000 households served by the Bigfork green boxes an estimated $546,000 in gasoline costs each year to drive to the Somers site. She based that calculation on two trips weekly for each household, with gas at $3.50 per gallon.
“That does not count the hidden costs of air pollution, time lost, increased accident risk and so on,” Brynie said.
Several Bigfork residents testified about the hazard of increased traffic on Montana 82, where the Somers site is located.
“That piece of road is a death trap,” Beth Morgenstern said.
Brynie asked the board to consider setting up a work group of citizens, Solid Waste Board members and county solid waste employees to further study the Bigfork consolidation.
The board agreed to put the request on the January meeting agenda.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.