Rhino's Ramblings: Welcome Back Garbungle

Robert Thomas

Throughout the past week, the top local news has been the release of a survey on city-wide conversion to curbside garbage collection and Council’s response to it. You remember that issue don’t you?

First proposed and approved in last year’s budget, the highly emotional and controversial issue dominated Council for a good portion of 2017. Meeting after meeting the issue dragged on, consuming precious hours of Council time.

I remember writing column after column for the now defunct Moose Jaw Times-Herald on the issue and coined the term "Garbungle", locally.

Well, despite what Council may have liked to happen, Garbungle is once again on the agenda and I am hearing the R word (Referendum) on the issue all over town. Now, whether that happens is yet to be seen but let me assure you the anger is there which could very well fuel it. It just needs the right people to step forward, with the right questions and strategies and guaranteed a city-wide vote is a slam dunk.

Costing an estimated $100,000, a referendum would not only be a costly affair financially but seen by many, a referendum also on the future of Mayor Frasier Tolmie and possibly others on Council. A highly pivotal political moment in the history of Moose Jaw.

With that said though, whether a Referendum will proceed past the R and onto the E is yet to be seen, with all apologies to the Saskatchewan NDP, but this is Moose Jaw and a referendum petition circulating this Spring would in no way surprise me. No amount of stories through what many view as City Hall friendly media will stop it if the right things happen.

In the past week, I have been approached by close to a dozen individuals I am going to call "bellwether citizens" on this issue. No, these aren’t people who prefer backlane collection but rather they are residents who personally prefer curbside. They’re angry because in their minds the City just spent $10,000 on a survey trying to get an answer they wanted and when Council didn’t get that answer they simply ignored the survey.

They, like many residents, see the survey as a complete waste of time and money and indicative in their minds as a City, and most notably a City Council, unwilling to listen.

Recent genuine and honest efforts by the City looking for feedback and public input are quite honestly, in my opinion, at peril.

Many residents view Council’s decision in Executive Committee (a 4-2 vote with Councillors Don Mitchell and Chris Warren opposed. Councillor Brian Swanson was absent) as not only ignoring residents’ wishes on this issue but indicative of a general feeling City Hall is only listening to a select few.

For this bellwether group of individuals to start to express doubts about how responsive the City is to listening to residents’ concerns, in my opinion, is a tipping point in this Council’s evolution. Fail here and you risk irretrievably losing residents’ confidence.

Now, in this Council’s defence, there are several issues here which necessitate changes in the entire solid waste or garbage collection utility. Many of them are factors beyond the City’s control, while others are in their control.

Provincial government regulations, when it comes to solid waste, are evolving rapidly. Premier Scott Moe has announced yet-to-be-released regulations on garbage. A new comprehensive scheme which will likely see the creation of regional landfills, environmental diversion from landfills and perhaps even provincial surcharges.

We have already seen a regulatory change requiring covering the landfill five days a week, instead of the previous three that the old regulations required. And yes, complying is going to cost the City money, but the caveat needs to be added that the City was also caught in an audit not complying with the previous regulations.

Although, I cannot prove it, in my opinion, not covering the landfill properly likely led to all that blowing trash ending up with an embarrassing story about it on CTV News Regina. Ignoring the problems with the landfill in the past is rapidly catching up with the City.

The landfill is not located in a geologically appropriate location. It is located in an area of lighter and even gravelly soil, which means liquids can leak out, called leachate, potentially threatening surface and aquifer water. Sadly for Moose Jaw we have had a leachate leak - to what  extent is presently unknown – but there are going to be some clean up costs which could be substantial.
Coupled with this, the landfill has only a few years of life remaining until a new site has to be ready. Bi-weekly and hopefully increased recycling will help to extend its lifespan for the five years necessary to make the move.

In many ways, residents’ own choices on separating their garbage between green and blue bins will have an impact on the landfill. Sadly though, the same cannot be said when it comes to where 80 percent of the trash comes from multi-family dwellings and commercial properties, as their recycling efforts are all voluntary. The onus is on the 20 percent single family dwelling to pick up the slack. New provincial regulations might deal with this.

Even on an international scale, Moose Jaw is effected, as China is now no longer accepting many items from abroad; most notably plastics. This has municipalities, country-wide, scrambling trying to find places willing to accept many recyclable items.

The City has not been able to communicate effectively the financial benefits of curbside. People are reluctant to believe GPS data which shows that curbside is 18 percent more efficient. Now is it a problem with how City Hall has put forward the information to residents on this issue or is it a long-standing mistrust of City Hall in general? If it’s the latter you seemingly have Mount Everest to tackle.

If the voices do get louder on city-wide curbside and a referendum does happen it could potentially derail Council for a better part of a year. Plus, it would also strike at a time none too convenient for the City and it’s new strategy regarding provincial cuts.

As a budget item, rolling out city-wide curbside collection needs to come quickly. The next Council meeting is April 9th the provincial budget is April 10th. The problem is if Council approves curbside on April 9th, it will dominate the news cycle and direct people’s ire towards City Hall just at the time City Hall wants residents to put pressure on the SaskParty government.
There is no doubt in my mind that there will be extensive debate and discussion on this issue when it comes to Council. To simply call a closed door planning session, discuss it, make decisions and then try to quietly pass it at Council is not going to be accepted by residents. Especially after the budget was finalized in-camera.

One also needs to remember that curbside opponent, the outspoken Councillor Brian Swanson, was away on holidays for the Executive Meeting which approved curbside. I would not ever bet he will not say something when this issue comes to Council.

The problem with Garbungle this time around is it could really affect what looks to be their’s and the Saskatchewan Urban Municipality Association or SUMA’s strategy when it comes to the Province’s austerity budget.

The Mayor has continually been pointing at the Province’s cutbacks as the City’s number one budgetary shortfall in an attempt for this City not to just suck it up and deal with it. Even Opposition Leader Dr. Ryan Meili has quoted the Mayor during Question Period to attack the government.

READ: Moose Jaw's Financial Woes Make Question Period

Rightly or wrongly, the City’s budget problems and the hopes of pressuring the Province for more help is quite literally tied up in the trash.

We will all know this coming Wednesday evening, as a rumour has it a community meeting has been called for 7pm at the Moose Jaw Public Library. And sorry, this is no April Fool’s joke.

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