Commentary

Aging Mountaineers Feel Marginalized by Trash Plan

By Leslee Kulba

The Buncombe County Commissioners gave citizens an opportunity to articulate publicly the complaints they had been sending in emails. The county’s contract with Waste Pro was scheduled to expire at the end of the year, and when proposals were solicited for the next hauler, Waste Pro was the only responsive and responsible bidder. The county then negotiated a contract to better address issues at a good rate for subscribers.

Can Waste Pro and the County come to grips with the waste problem? Photo by Christoph Deinet.
Can Waste Pro and the County come to grips with the waste problem? Photo by Christoph Deinet.

The new deal would charge customers $19.21 a month. Included would be one rollout cart for trash and another for recycling. Customers would have the option of getting a 96-, 64-, or 48-gallon cart. Collection for trash would be weekly; recycling, biweekly. The uniform bins would help Waste Pro service only paying customers.

The rollout carts seemed like a good idea, because Waste Pro could invest in one-arm bandits and collect trash far more rapidly. Furthermore, the county’s Solid Waste Director Dane Pedersen said picking up solid waste is the nation’s fifth deadliest occupation, with 35 persons dying from injuries sustained last year. Commissioner Robert Pressley added those who pick up bags risk getting pricked by contaminated needles or gashed from broken glass.

Those who participated in public comment mostly complained they were frail and elderly; many were over 80 years old. The typical scenario involved a senior citizen with arthritis, a bad back, heart problems, or a bad leg; only generating one small bag of trash a week and unable to haul a 96-gallon cart the tenth of a mile or mile of graveled, uneven terrain; up to the road, which is a highway, with no shoulder and steep drop-offs.

Commissioner Mike Fryar shared anecdotes from those on fixed incomes who had emailed him. “We’re sitting up here. We’re giving money to every THING in this county. This whole board just thinks up stuff to give them. Millions of dollars to nonprofits: MHO, a nonprofit, [got a] $2.2 million [loan] with no interest for 20 years. And we can’t figure out how to help the older people? … I’m sick of what we do to the old people.… It’s time to figure out how we can help. We can sit here and watch the nonprofits walk in the room, and they walk out with millions of dollars. [Now,] we sit here and watch people who are having a problem – they can’t do something – and we can’t figure out how to fix it.”

Having earlier made a request that public comment be taken earlier in the meeting so those living on winding roads in far-out parts of the county could get home before dark, Fryar added a lot of those who are too ill to haul a garbage cart were also too ill to attend the meeting. He continued, “What are we going to do with the person who tries to get the cart down the hill and they fall and break a hip? We can’t do anything for them. They just go to the hospital, nursing home, whatever. We’re not thinking in the right form here…. We don’t need to worry about solar panels today. We need to worry about how the old people are going to get their trash out of the yard.”

Pedersen followed with what had been said many times before in the chambers about persons with disabilities being able to get backdoor service at no extra charge by showing Waste Pro a doctor’s notice. Persons without a medical condition who would prefer to get the backdoor service could still get it, but for a fee of about $25 a month.

Commissioner Al Whitesides observed, in not so many words, “What we have here, is failure to communicate.” Whitesides said over 70% of the emails he had received pertained to problems that already had a solution, but people, him included, were unable to get a Waste Pro person on the phone. Waste Pro is based in Florida, and Whitesides suggested they add two or three lines dedicated to Buncombe County calls. Whitesides, who lives in Asheville, recalled how people voiced the same concerns when the city transitioned. “Now, we wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

County Manager Avril Pinder said Waste Pro had, in fact, added phone lines, and the county had answered questions again and again. The problem is the answers are not acceptable.

Commissioner Joe Belcher acknowledged this was an emotional issue, but now it was time to get numbers. How many people needed backdoor service? How many would be leaving Waste Pro because of the roll carts? How many people needed to buy expensive, bear-proof carts? If the expense was only going to be $3,000, he said he could cover it personally. He added that if the elderly lady with one bag were his neighbor, her bag would be in his cart.

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