Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

August 27, 2012

Chipper idea sounds best, at least for now

TAHLEQUAH — Discussion on how to solve the city’s brush pickup problem has been simmering on the burner for years – some say a decade or longer. Mayor Jason Nichols has decided that’s too long to hash over an issue without taking action.

This summer, Nichols asked City Councilors Linda Spyres and Diane Weston, and Street Commissioner Mike Corn, to seek alternatives to the current brush collection and disposal system. For now, citizens leave brush by the curb, then street crews transport it to a solid waste site; from there, it’s hauled to Muskogee. But the brush isn’t compacted, so crews are hauling “mostly air,” and the city’s expending thousands of dollars each year.

Nichols has looked over the options, and believes buying a wood chipper, at a cost of $35,000 to $50,000, is a good idea. A few local residents who have been engaged in city affairs agree. The chipper, advocates say, would allow trucks to haul more than 10 times the brush in one load and cut fuel expenses. The chips could then be used at Tahlequah Public Works Authority’s wastewater treatment plant, or perhaps even sold to the public.

Predictably, not everyone’s on the same page. During Monday night’s council meeting, Corn commented to Nichols: “The thing about it is, you want it, so we’re going to be stuck with a chipper.”

Corn raised a few valid points. He worried that use of a chipper would require citizens to bundle brush in a “certain way”; this would mean extra work, which they would find upsetting. But while the folks doing the added labor might be voters, and officials understandably don’t want to upset them, this seems to make a rather base assumption – that local residents would be angry if asked to do their part to make the community a better place.

Corn was correct when he suggested this work might unduly burden seniors or people who can’t afford to dispose of larger items, like trees. But as Councilor Jack Spears rightly pointed out, the city should, and could, help out in such cases. Besides, he said, homeowners do have certain responsibilities, and tree removal should be one of them.

Another option, championed by the panel, is to contract for brush pickup through a Sand Springs company. Spyres estimates the city would pay a $1,250 mobilization charge every time the company came to town, plus $3,000 per day for the grinding process. But no specific information has been presented to show contracting the work out is the best long-term solution. Nichols and Assistant City Administrator Kevin Smith, who has many years of municipal government operations under his belt, both think a per-day approach is too vague.

Corn and Spyres suggested the city could stockpile brush collections for months at a time, and the contractor would be needed only a few days each year. But how much brush would there be, and where would it be stored in the meantime? Could it all be ground up in one day, or would this be a days-long process at a much higher expense? If it took only one day to grind the piles, and the company came in four times a year, the fee would be about $17,000 per year, but the city would still incur costs of collecting and hauling the brush.

Another concern was sparked by information provided by Corn. The Sand Springs company may be the only one in Oklahoma that does this work. What happens if it goes out of business, or raises prices? The city would likely have no other options, and would either be forced to pay more, or go back to the drawing board. And what happens if officials aren’t happy with the work? All due respect to city officials’ diligence, when governmental entities are involved, contractors can often get away with shoddy work. Ask any public school or university administrator; sometimes it’s just too much trouble to force a contractor to make it right.

If the panel believes contracting is the best solution, it needs to provide more data to bolster its position. At the moment, the plan supported by Nichols – which keeps the operation local and offers a long-term solution – appears the most viable.

As far as extra work for citizens, Nichols said: “All we have to do is muster the political courage to ask people to take some very reasonable steps before they put [brush] on the curb.”

“Political courage” is sadly lacking on the state and national levels these days. It’s refreshing when officials step outside that stereotype.

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