In Annual Sign of Summer, Trash Piles Up

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Summer is a busy time in the Flathead Valley. And the lakes, trails and cabins are not the only things filling up.

County green box sites, especially those located on the valley floor, see a heavy increase in the amount of garbage received. This can lead to a delicate balancing act in the refuse business between service levels and funding.

“Summer months are our busiest,” said Flathead County Public Works Director David Prunty. “We are working to get the sites emptied.”

More people in the county means more trash, and more garbage can lead to overflowing containers at these sites, as witnessed last week on Highway 83 at the Bigfork green box site.

County crews from the Solid Waste Department were on scene methodically unloading the jam-packed green boxes one afternoon last week, but cars and trucks pulled in to the site and began immediately refilling them.

One couple, requesting not to be identified, said they had been coming to this site for years, and this was the worst they had ever seen it.

Prunty said county crews try to empty the busiest sites two to three times a day.

The amount of garbage Flathead County residents throw away each year is directly connected to the amount of personnel assigned to remove that garbage, Prunty said. And since the trash flow in these sites is dynamic, the county tries to be as efficient with its resources as possible, he added.

“We don’t want to have too many people on staff and not enough garbage,” Prunty said.

This year’s garbage collection is down considerably from two years ago, Prunty said, because construction waste used to add significant tonnage. The Solid Waste Department has seen a $500,000 loss in revenue without this bulk waste coming to the dump, Prunty said.

Green box sites have seen a similar drop in usage, he said.

“July is almost always our busiest month. It’s nothing like it was two and three Julys ago; we were really busy then,” Prunty said.

According to data from the Solid Waste Department, Flathead County green box sites collected 28,886 tons of garbage in fiscal year 2009. This number is down from 30,313 tons in 2008 and 31,382 tons in 2007. Container sites collected 31,342 tons in fiscal year 2006.

Prunty suspects the economy has also played a part in lower garbage levels because people have less disposable income and are not throwing away as much.

Last winter, the Solid Waste Department cut three full-time positions in response to lower waste levels. The department has since brought one full-time position back and has another “on call” position, Prunty said.

Prunty said staffing levels are still up for assessment, but he is wary to ask the commissioners to increase the annual assessment on residents’ property taxes that helps fund the container sites.

“I just do not want to have to consider raising people’s assessment,” Prunty said. “I don’t think the commissioners would approve it.”

Flathead County Administrator Mike Pence noted that this assessment is not a tax or a levy; instead the amount is decided by a formula, which, in turn, is partially derived from garbage tonnage and how much it costs to process that garbage.

It is similar to the way a city charges for water or sewer services, Pence said.

As far as the budget, the Solid Waste Department has a rhythmic flow as well. Some years, such as 2008 and the upcoming 2011, see particularly large budget increases because the county dump is shutting down a certain area and expanding into a new one.

For example, the total budget in 2010 for the department was roughly $6.4 million, according to county figures. The 2011 budget is nearly $8.8 million, with $1.45 million set aside for post-closure work in the dump and $1.37 million for the dump and liner expansion.

The budget for the green box container sites dropped in 2011 to $1.1 million, down from $1.5 million last year.

Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said the department tries to operate as cost-effectively as possible when taking personnel and equipment into consideration.

“Obviously if we send trucks and things are only half full, that’s not very efficient,” Brenneman said. “We only try to haul full truckloads.”

Brenneman also noted that the Bigfork site can be problematic because of its size and location, but it is going to have to do for the time being.

“It’s the best we have right now and we don’t have room to fit any more boxes,” Brenneman said.

The county rents the Bigfork and Lakeside green box sites from the Montana Department of Transportation and owns the Creston and Somers sites. Prunty said there is potential for consolidation from four sites to two and that it would help efficiency within the department.

The county-owned sites are the “big sites” and would be able to handle consolidation, Prunty said.

Currently, the county Solid Waste District Board is working toward closing the green box sites up the canyon – Nyack, Essex and Glacier Haven, formally known as the Denny’s site.

Whether the Bigfork and Lakeside sites are up for consolidation next is up to the board, Prunty said.