I attended the July 23 meeting of the Flathead County Solid Waste Board. I was pleased about its decision to extend the timeline for Bigfork’s effort to preserve and improve its solid waste collection site. As Bigfork Chairman Paul Mutascio summarized so well, the local committee has worked long and hard to assess the problems at the site and to search for solutions. Several positive alternatives have been identified, and community support for them runs deep and wide.
However, I heard comments from board members that were reminiscent of where we were when we started this process last January. So, I feel compelled to publicly reiterate some of the reasons why the retention of a collection facility in the Bigfork area is imperative. For one, the Bigfork site is second only to Columbia Falls in the amount of refuse collected. The need in this part of the county is significant.
Second, our committee has studied the options for curbside collection in depth. Bigfork is not a community of city-style streets with houses spaced along those streets on lots – the kind of configuration suitable for curbside services. Only a relatively small number of Bigfork homes are sited that way. Most Bigfork residents (i.e. those with Bigfork mailing addresses) live out of the town center, on small lanes, byways and gravel rural roads where curbside pickup is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive.
I heard an assertion that Whitefish (where curbside is used) should not have to “pay for Bigfork.” While it is true that every county resident pays an equal amount into the solid waste fund, it is also true that community needs and distances from the landfill vary. The green box site in Columbia Falls is said to be a model of cleanliness and efficiency. Should Whitefish “pay” for Columbia Falls? Should Bigfork? The citizens of Kila have now lost their collection site? Should they get a refund? I challenge that kind of thinking. We contribute collectively to the solid waste fund of the county, and we trust the county to implement fair and equitable programs to meet all citizens’ needs.
I heard the comment that driving “only another five miles” (to Somers) imposes only a minor burden on Bigfork families. Not so. From population numbers, it is reasonable to estimate that the Bigfork container site serves about 3,000 households. If you assume two rubbish trips a week, an extra 10 miles per trip (to Somers and back), an average of 20 miles/gallon for a private vehicle, and gasoline at $3.65 per gallon, the total cost PER YEAR for Bigfork families driving their garbage to Somers in GASOLINE COSTS ALONE is $569,000. If you assume that one trip a week is adequate, the cost still tops a quarter of a million. That is no small amount, and the economy of scale to be achieved by paying the county to haul the garbage that distance is massive when summed over five, ten, or twenty years.
I also heard an objection to investing in an alternative Bigfork site that may become available. Should that option prove feasible, the county would gain an asset. The county would own the land and could use it in profitable ways for many years to come. I assert that purchasing the property would be an investment in the county, not merely an outlay of funds.
Finally, we heard from the Columbia Falls city manager that the accumulation of garbage from illegal dumping has increased in that community, simply because of restricted hours at the green box site. We predict a worse problem if Bigfork closes entirely. If garbage disposal is made too difficult for people, some of them will take the easy way out. It is human nature. We all know that keeping Bigfork clean and safe benefits all county residents.
I am one of the many residents of Bigfork who hope that each Solid Waste Board member will reconsider his previous view on the Bigfork green box site and decide to work with us in retaining service and improving facilities.
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