Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Trash the Cowboy Way

Cleaning Up the Old West the Modern Way

By KEN BELSON  New York TImes
 
TOMBSTONE, Ariz. — It is fair to say that well before the Earp brothers shot three cowboys in a lot behind the O.K. Corral, this city had a trash problem. Mule and horse droppings were everywhere. The stench of leather being tanned, charcoal burning and ore being dug out of the earth burned the nostrils. Garbage piled high in the muddy streets.
This may explain why Ordinance 6, which in 1881 created a Board of Health and outlined how to dispose of animal carcasses, rotting food and dead bodies, precedes Ordinance 9, which famously banned carrying guns in the city. After all, residents were more likely to die of disease than gunfire back then.
And still, more than 130 years later, the city continues to wrestle with its refuse.
Tombstone has had a tough time keeping up with the trash created by the streams of tourists who come to see the shootouts, saloons and graveyards. Trash pickup slows when one of the city’s two-person garbage crew calls in sick, or if a truck has to be sent to Phoenix, more than 170 miles away, for repairs.
Declines in tourism and in income from the state’s revenue-sharing program have hit the city’s $3.5 million annual budget. Last July, a fire nearly wiped out the city’s water supply infrastructure, which will force Tombstone to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair its aqueducts.
So last week, Tombstone started paying Waste Management, a private hauler, to collect its trash and expand its recycling program. The city still will collect money from each household for trash collection, but will turn it over to Waste Management instead of keeping it.
The company will buy the city’s two trucks, one of which is for backup, enabling the city to retire its $180,000 in debt on them. The city will no longer have to worry about fixing trucks or buying garbage cans, and the wooden barrels that doubled as garbage cans on historic Allen Street will be replaced with solar-powered compactors that will wirelessly alert the city when they are full.
“In this trickle-down economy, we’re on the bottom,” said Mayor Jack Henderson. “We looked at everything, and one of the things we didn’t do well was garbage. This is a big decision for our little town.”
Tombstone is only the latest city to outsource services to save money. Waste Management works with dozens of other cities nationally, according to Rodney Glassman, the director of public sector solutions for the company in Arizona and New Mexico. Cities have also hired outsiders to provide police protection, emergency medical care and water and sewage services.
But Tombstone, with a population of 1,500, is unusual because it creates a disproportionate amount of trash. The city welcomes at least 200,000 tourists a year. During the Helldorado festival or Wyatt Earp Days, three times as much garbage as usual is generated. Visitors have been surprised that they cannot recycle soda cans and plastic bottles.
Yet in a city that lives off its past, change can come slowly. Tombstone’s roughly 580 households will continue to pay $17 a month for curbside pickup, though not recycling, which must be done at centrally located depots. Waste Management will take the recycled materials from the depots and pay the city for the materials, which it will later sell.
But some residents fear that Waste Management will raise its rates. Each home will now have two cans for garbage instead of one, but garbage will be collected only once a week instead of twice, leading others to worry that the summer heat will turn their trash into a stinking mess.
Retirees fret that the new drivers will not help them carry their trash cans to the curb.
“A lot of people are nervous,” said Carla Molina, who drove the city’s garbage truck for the past dozen years and will now focus on recycling, because the city will have to prepare the materials for recycling by Waste Management. “I try to be positive, but some people don’t understand.”
Still, the city known as The Town Too Tough to Die has survived by being practical. After World War I, when residents wanted to turn Tombstone into a tourist spot, they cleaned up Boothill Graveyard, which had been used as a dump. Over the years, the city outsourced its phone, gas and electric service and closed its landfill.
Nancy Sosa, the city archivist, recalled that when she was a child growing up in this high desert 35 miles from the Mexican border, city workers picked up trash by hand and used a pickup truck to supplement the garbage truck.
“We’re not stuck in 1881,” she said while showing off the city’s Code of Ordinances, which she cleaned after retrieving it from the basement of the old city hall. More than “130 years later, there are others who can do garbage pickup so we can focus on other things.”
Residents along historic Allen Street said they understood why the city hired a private hauler, though they were less clear that Waste Management, in consultation with the city, could raise its fees to offset increases in inflation, fuel and landfill costs. Increased recycling, though, may cover any price increases, said George Barnes, the city manager. Tombstone now receives about $15,000 a year for its cardboard, a figure that is likely to double now that plastic, aluminum and newsprint will be collected as well. This is equal to one city worker’s salary. “Frankly, we were amateurs in the garbage business for a long time,” Mr. Barnes said over lunch at the Crystal Palace Saloon. “People have been saying, ‘Gee, when are we going to join the next century?’ ”
Barbara Highfield, the owner of Tombstone Real Estate, is one of those people. Since moving here from Oregon 18 years ago, she has collected cans and bottles in her car, hoping to find a place to recycle them. Guiltily, she sometimes threw them in with the trash. “When relatives would come from Oregon, they were appalled by my bad behavior,” she said. “I’ll be glad to be able to recycle again.”



      

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