Featured photo: Greensboro’s mayor and city council cast their votes on new leaf collection carts.

On Tuesday evening, Greensboro’s mayor and city council approved a $369,000 contract with Schaefer Plastics and will spend nearly $3.75 million on yard waste carts — all in all, a $4.1 million decision.

Council threw out several aspects of leaf collection in August last year, including the cessation of using plastic bags for yard waste as well as the end of loose-leaf pickup. These rules will go into effect on March 1. 

Now, instead of bagging leaves, in summer 2024 homeowners will be provided with 96-gallon carts that can be lifted into waste trucks in order to prevent putting strain on city workers. Councilmember Zack Matheny has remained a staunch opponent of the termination of loose-leaf collection.

When the clock struck 7:30 on Tuesday evening, heralding a brief meeting break, Matheny told TCB: “I’m going out there to get some votes,” as he rushed out of the council chambers to track down his fellow councilmembers.

Nevertheless, Greensboro city council voted in a 6-2 decision to sign the contract and fork over the money, with Matheny and Councilmember Hugh Holston casting the dissenting votes.

According to Matheny, the city services 50,485 homes. In District 1, there are 8,912 homes; District 2, 4,579; District 3, 15,320; District 4, 15,418 and in District 5 there are 6,256.

“If you care about the people that fund our $751-plus million budget, you will not make a decision that affects them more,” Matheny said.

Councilmember Sharon Hightower wasn’t fazed by the change.

“The heaviest tonnage of leaves is in West Greensboro,” she said, where they have “beautiful oak trees.” But Hightower represents District 1 in East Greensboro. “We’ve got the saplings. We ain’t got no leaves,” she said.

How is the city paying for this?

These carts will be purchased with limited obligation bonds, according to city documents

The carts will act as the collateral, Assistant City Manager Larry Davis said. 

“We pay the borrowed money back over time,” Davis told Matheny.

Davis said that they’ve used limited obligation bonds for many other things, including parking facilities. But those facilities are revenue generating, Matheny retorted.

“If we’re borrowing this money in today’s world,” Matheny questioned, “What is the estimated interest rate we’re going to be paying?”

Davis replied the rate will be 2-3 percent, and they will be paying it back over 20 years.

So what would the total figure of that payback look like, Matheny asked, adding, “Surely you’ve got it?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” Davis said. Davis said that his best guess was in the “$5-6 million range with the interest.”

Matheny said that he didn’t see how council could “vote on an item that is not indicative of the amount of money that would actually be affected by the city budget.”

So how much will the city save over the next 15 years? In an email to TCB, the city’s Interim Director of Solid Waste and Recycling Chris Marriott stated that the city should save about $550,000 during the first year. However, their savings will increase with each passing year due to fixed equipment costs versus labor costs, Marriott wrote. By year 15, the estimated savings for that year would be $1.1 million.

“Cumulative savings over 15 years is now estimated to be $12,927,000,” Marriott concluded.

What will leaf collection look like going forward?

The new 96-gallon yard waste carts are the size of regular garbage or recycling cans, and will be collected once a week. Whatever yard waste doesn’t fit in the cart will have to go in biodegradable bags. 

During leaf season, city workers will pick up a maximum of 15 bags per week. Outside of leaf season, they’ll pick up 10.

“Who’s paying for those bags?” Holston asked Solid Waste Collections Manager Griffin Hatchell.

Hatchell responded, “The resident.”

Holston decided to do a bit of math on the fly, calculating the cost of the biodegradable bags to the taxpayer. He brought the amount of houses in his estimation down to 20,000, since some houses only need one collection each leaf season.

If each household uses around 30 bags per leaf season, that’s 600,000 bags, Holston said.

And each bag costs 42 cents, Hatchell said. Five biodegradable bags can be bought for $2.68 at Lowe’s Home Improvement. At 42 cents per bag, the cost of 600,000 bags could amount to $252,000.

“The math isn’t mathing here,” Holston said.

The city currently requires that yard waste be put into clear plastic bags. Holston toyed with the city’s logic, again.

“And they were clear for what reason?” Holston asked Marriott, who responded: “So that city staff could tell what was in there.”

“Can we see through the paper bags?” Holston asked.

The crowd erupted in laughter.

Still, Mayor Nancy Vaughan chose to deflect during her statements on the matter. 

“This is such a first-world problem,” she said. “We have so many issues facing our city, whether it’s homelessness, housing, public safety. That’s really what our focus should be on.”

Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann aired her concerns about the “piles of leaves, five feet high.”

Those piles impede traffic, and make it “impossible for walkers, for bikers” to travel safely, she said. “It really is an untenable process and situation that we’ve had in this city for years,” Hoffmann added.

Homeowner Brian Cooke rakes his own leaves, but he’s concerned about elderly and disabled residents who might have difficulty coaxing their yard waste into these bags. “They’re gonna have to pay for it out of pocket,” Cooke said. 

“It’s a hidden tax, more or less,” he said. “It’s short-sighted, it’s not thought out.”

Additionally, HOA’s can be picky and demand that homeowners keep their yards free of leaves, contradicting the city’s suggestion to simply “leave the leaves,” a concept promoted by environmentalists to leave the annual blanket of leaves on lawns or mulch them. 

“Raking your leaves can be a tiring task. The good news is – you don’t have to do it,” said Greensboro’s Chief Sustainability Officer Shree Dorestant in a statement from the city. “Leaving leaves to naturally decompose where they land creates natural mulch that enriches the soil and creates a habitat and food for beneficial microorganisms, insects and small wildlife, among other environmental benefits.”

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