Last night, I vented online about the trash situation in downtown Ypsi, and, quite rightly, I was called out for it by Downtown Development Authority Treasurer Adam Gainsley, who asked in a comment why I hadn’t reached out to anyone at the DDA for their side of the story. Following, with his consent, is our subsequent conversation.
MARK: So, Adam, if you’re up for it, let’s start at the beginning… The rules regarding use of the downtown dumpsters managed by the DDA just recently changed, correct?
ADAM: Correct. Until recently, access to the dumpsters was essentially free and unrestricted. There were locks on the enclosures, but they were rarely locked, and the keys that opened them were shared pretty freely from what I understand. Starting last month, though, the traditional locks were replaced with keypad locks. Business and building owners can get access codes by signing an agreement with the DDA to pay for the use of the dumpsters. To get started, all people need to do is contact DDA Director Joe Meyers. His phone number and email address are on our contact page.
That’s really all that has changed. The dumpsters in question are still 100% available for use.
MARK: So trash is still being picked up like it had been in the past. It’s just that people now need to pay, and some aren’t…
ADAM: Yes. Pickup service has not been interrupted. In fact, in June of this year, we just renewed the contract through June of 2017. So everything is the same. The DDA is managing the service contract for the dumpsters and looking after the enclosures, monitoring for oversized objects and anything else that requires immediate attention.
MARK: On the subject of those who have opted not to pay the DDA for dumpster access, some of our larger downtown landlords have apparently told their tenants to start leaving their garbage at the curb instead of paying the fee, correct?
ADAM: Yes. From your article, and the comments folks have left on Facebook, it sounds like tenants near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington have been instructed to put their trash in cans either next to their building or at the curb. Given that our outreach efforts were quite thorough, I’m operating on the assumption that this was an intentional decision on the landlord’s part, and didn’t just happen as a result of a lack of information. (I would be happy to find out I’m wrong on this point though.) Other than that, I don’t know that we can categorize all large downtown landlords as having opted to take this route. In my conversations with landlords, most have agreed that putting trash on the curbs is generally bad for everyone involved, and agree that paying for trash service is more desirable.
MARK: So some downtown landlords are paying so that that their tenants have access to the dumpsters?
ADAM: That’s correct. Seven residential units have signed up… and, as far as I know, they were all signed up by the landlord, as opposed to the tenant.
MARK: Am I right to assume that this is perfectly legal on the part of these landlords who have chosen to opt out, or is there an ordinance against putting one’s garbage on the curb in areas zoned for business?
ADAM: My understanding is this it’s legal, but it’s limited to a certain number of bags and certain timing, meaning that bags can only be put out so far in advance of pickup.
MARK: So, going back a moment, what instigated this DDA policy change? Why is the DDA no longer just picking up the tab for local businesses and residents to use what had, up until now, been communal dumpsters?
ADAM: The short answer is the usual one: Money.
When I joined the DDA in late 2013, our overall budget was pretty heavily in the red. We had been eating into our reserves for a couple years at that point, and, if we didn’t shape up quickly, we were going to run out of money altogether.
We reduced our grant programs, reduced the amount we spent on streetscaping and planters, and, in general, cut back or ended programs across the board. In the Michigan Avenue district, we were still solidly in the red after more than a year of nothing but reductions. So, starting in late 2014, and continuing into early 2015, the board decided to implement a voluntary fee system for garbage collection. We reached out to stakeholders, and, not surprisingly, uptake was minimal. I believe the contributions we received covered less than 5% of the costs associated with maintaining and servicing the dumpsters, which are about $22,000 a year.
Starting in late 2015, and going into early 2016, taking into consideration the fact that our budget decreased approximately $60,000 per year as a result of our our revenue sharing contract with the City [we agreed to pay for certain expenses that that City had previously paid for], there was no amount of cutting we could do and stay above water while continuing to pay for the dumpster service. At this point we decided to implement a mandatory fee for the use of the dumpsters.
I should also point out that, over the years, some board members have expressed the opinion that we shouldn’t be involved with dumpsters at all. And, for what it’s worth, I agreed with this position initially. As we’ve discussed the transition to a fee-based model, though, and engaged with the business community, it’s become abundantly clear that local stakeholders feel as though we should continue to have this as a priority. So, while we can’t support it financially, we can, and will, continue to manage and organize the dumpsters and service.
MARK: As I understand it, from our earlier email exchange, this wasn’t something that was just decided by the DDA in isolation, correct? I mean, there was a process that you went through before deciding to change the system, right? Can you describe that process, and tell us who was involved in those conversations?
ADAM: Correct. I’d estimate that we’ve talked about the dumpsters and trash collection at more than half of the board and committee meetings I’ve attended since joining the DDA three years ago. My understanding is that the modern incarnation of this discussion dates back to 2011, when the board began to recognize the strain this was putting on our budget.
And, at each stage in this progression, we’ve made an effort to reach building and business owners in the areas that use the dumpsters. Most recently, as we began transitioning to mandatory fees, we sent a letter to all the building owners in the district. Additionally, staff took copies of that letter directly to the businesses and spoke to any managers and owners who were available. We also had the dumpsters on the agenda for most of our board meetings, and even added it to a couple of agendas at the request of certain business owners so they would have a chance to speak. Then, in April of this year, I chaired a special meeting devoted entirely to this topic. We had around 20 business owners and operators attend.
Finally, in May, we had a public, ad-hoc committee meeting. I missed it, but it was attended by: Dave Heikkinen (Heikks Decorated Apparel), Karen Maurer (Maurer Management), Brian Brinkley (Tap Room), Patrick Williams (Corner Health), Eli Morrissey (The Rocket) and John Cool (Red Rock). The notes from that meeting state that those present indicated that they wanted the DDA to tell them what they should pay. At that meeting Karen Mauer indicated that she would not pay for service.
MARK: OK, before we go forward any further, I should probably ask if you think the current situation is acceptable? Do you think that downtown renters should be putting their garbage on the curb, in front of local businesses? I mean, we can agree that’s not optimal, right?
ADAM: I am very much against putting trash on curbs in our commercial districts. Enclosed dumpsters are the appropriate place for trash in these areas. I don’t want to see trash on the curbs as a citizen, as I walk through the district almost every day. Also, as a former restaurant manager, I know it’s a bad move to have garbage, especially restaurant garbage, visible where people are eating. And, as a DDA board member, I’m against it because our goal is to maintain a clean, safe, vibrant commercial district. This is why we made absolutely sure not to actually interrupt service. This is also why the board capitulated when business owners told us that we needed to continue to provide this service. Unfortunately we are simply unable to capitulate with regard to paying for the service.
MARK: OK, let’s talk about the costs that have been quoted. What has the DDA told our downtown business owners and landlords? As I mentioned in my post, I’d heard from one downtown building owner that he and another landlord had been quoted a price of $975 per month for their tenants to access the existing downtown dumpsters. Is this correct?
ADAM: The thinking behind the rates was based on covering our costs only. We are making no effort to profit from this. From my understanding we end up being significantly cheaper than any of the privately or individually maintained dumpsters around town.
As I write this, our staff just added the agreement and fee schedule to our website. You’ll find it at the bottom of this page.
Here, though, are the *monthly* fees:
$125 per restaurant
$50 per commercial-non-restaurant-business
$25 per residential unit
So the $975 per month fee that you cited is possible with some combination of these, but certainly not for any single unit or business. And I’ll repeat here, the fee schedule and agreement are now up on our website for anyone who would like to look.
MARK: Just so I’m clear on this, we also pay for garbage collection through our taxes, correct? Don’t all property owners in the City pay 2.8 mils for trash collection?
ADAM: This is correct. However my understanding is that the 2.8 mils don’t come close to covering the costs associated with the City’s curbside trash pickup. Those numbers are part of the City’s budget, which I’m less familiar with than the DDA’s budget, so I would defer to members of City Council, the Mayor, or City staff on that point. As a TIF collecting body, we do capture a piece of that millage as well, though. I believe the DDA’s share is less than $2,000 annually, which is just a fraction of what the downtown dumpsters cost.
MARK: This downtown building owner that I spoke with said that he’d reached out to Waste Management directly and received a quote for a new dumpster. To have a private dumpster for his tenants, he said, would cost $120 a month. I have no idea what size dumpster he requested a quote for, or whether it would be sufficient to service all of the units he manages, but, on the face of it, it seems like something’s amiss… How much is the DDA currently paying for downtown dumpster service? How many dumpsters do we have? And how frequently are they emptied?
ADAM: The total cost of the dumpsters, which includes pickup and maintenance, is approximately $22,000 per year. There are seven dumpsters total and they are picked up twice per week. For a private dumpster, in addition to the monthly cost of pickup service, there would also be costs around installation. These full-size dumpsters and enclosures cost around $10,000 to install. Other ongoing costs include maintenance, which in turn includes dealing with illicit dumping. Not a month goes by where there isn’t a couch or some other oversize object placed in one of our dumpsters, in fact today there is a mattress and boxspring leaned up against the outside of the enclosure. Each such removal costs $250, so that adds up very quickly. We’re hopeful, by the way, that having properly locked enclosures reduces this particular cost.
A quick back of the napkin calculation based on $120 per month for one dumpster pickup gives me:
$120 per month * 12 months * 7 dumpsters * 2 pickups per week = $20,160 a year
So I don’t think our total costs, including maintenance and the removal of large items, coming in close to $22,000 are unreasonable.
MARK: Given space constraints, the landlords are claiming that, even if they wanted to get their own dumpsters, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put them. Furthermore, they’re claiming that the City is insisting that, if they do get dumpsters of their own, they’d have to build enclosures around them, which, according to them, would cost about $8,500. Given this, what would you say to the idea of allowing our downtown landlords to place their own dumpsters inside the existing enclosures? Might that be a solution that all parties could live with?
ADAM: This is my understanding as well, though I think the $8,500 estimate is probably a little low. As for adding dumpsters, I don’t know that it makes sense, given that we already have dumpsters available that are more than adequate for our current use. I think, when you factor in the additional costs of actually maintaining a dumpster and enclosure, our fees will end up being lower than anyone can possibly expect to pay… I don’t see adding more dumpsters as a good outcome here. There are enough dumpsters to cover demand.
As for allowing landlords to maintain their own dumpsters within the existing enclosures I would not consider that option off the table. There are two reasons I wouldn’t put that forward as a better solution to our current arrangement.
One is that there doesn’t seem to be desire among business owners to manage their own dumpsters. Understandably, business owners would rather just have this distraction taken care of.
The second is that there isn’t enough room to support individual dumpsters for each business. So there would have to be sharing and coordination of contracts, payments and maintenance. It’s not impossible, but centralizing this effort with the DDA results in less headache for business owners and hopefully in the long run lower costs.
MARK: OK, so what are our options going forward? How can the DDA and the downtown landlords work this out?
ADAM: Right now, there are two and a half options that I am aware of for business owners. They are legally allowed to put their trash on the curbs right in front of their business (within limits on quantity and timing set out by City code). That’s one option. The other option is that they can pay to use enclosed dumpsters behind their businesses. The other half option is to try to install and use their own dumpsters. I call this a half option because I don’t think it’s very realistic, and my understanding is the costs would be prohibitive when taking into account pickup service, installation costs, and maintenance. Also, as you mention, this would require cooperation from the City, and I think generally they’re not going to support installing more/redundant dumpsters.
For now the things that DDA can provide are full management and maintenance of the dumpsters and related contracts. In addition, we can continue outreach to make sure no one is left without knowing how to get access to the dumpsters. Finally, I don’t think this will be the case, but if we do prove that our fees are outrageous based on costs for comparable dumpsters and service I for one will be open to revisiting our fee schedule.For what it’s worth, I just confirmed with Jessica French that they paid $450 last month for their service at Sidetrack. Granted, they’re one of the higher volume restaurants in Ypsilanti, but I still think this is an indication that our fees are reasonable.
My hope is that our business community will understand that in the past they have been receiving more service than they have been paying for. While this is great when we can afford it that just isn’t the case anymore. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow but the hard truth is that this is a service we can no longer afford to provide.
MARK: OK, let me know if I’ve got the math right here… The DDA manages three downtown dumpster enclosures (on Adams, North Hamilton and South Hamilton) with a total of seven dumpsters. The annual cost of maintaining these dumpsters, and dumping them each twice weekly is $22,000, if we don’t count the costs associated with taking care of larger items that are illegally dumped. And the DDA is only looking to recoup those costs, charging local restaurants $1,800 a year and the owners of residential units $300 a year. Do I have that right?
ADAM: You’ve basically got it. The $22,000 number does include large item removal as well as maintenance, though. I don’t have the actual breakdown, but the contract fees are approximately $18,000. Additionally each request to remove a large item costs $250, and we average about two of these requests per month.
MARK: Do we know how many apartment units and businesses we have in the vicinity of these dumpsters, and what percentage of them have already signed on to participate in this new fee-based garbage service managed by the DDA? Are we close to having the half a dozen restaurants and 40-some apartment units we need to cover the DDA’s expense of $22,000 a year?
ADAM: I don’t have the total numbers in front of me. I do know that, when we look at that number, we only take into consideration the buildings adjacent to the parking lots with dumpsters the DDA manages. So, for example, we don’t include Abe’s or Haabs because they have their own dumpsters on their respective blocks.
As of today we have the following number of participants signed up:
7 residential units
So we’re on track to recoup $925 per month. Ignoring other costs for now, our dumpster contract alone costs us $1,500 per month. So we’re off to a reasonably good start, but we need to get as many owners on board as possible. Further, we will be reviewing these fees annually and if we are more than covering our costs we’ll reduce fees. So the more folks that get on board, the lower everyone’s costs will be.
MARK: You mentioned that some landlords were already on board. Does this really just come down to Stewart Beal and Karen Maurer refusing to participate?
ADAM: I don’t know who has or hasn’t signed on. I know neither of them are happy with this development, though, and I understand and appreciate their frustration. I don’t know specifically whether they have or have not signed on, nor am sure it will be appropriate for me to pass that along when I do know.
MARK: I’m just trying to get a sense of how bad this issue really is, and whether or not it all really comes down to just a couple of our biggest downtown landlords, who between them operate several dozen units in close proximity to these dumpsters.
ADAM: I think a healthy portion of business owners so far see that working with us is much more beneficial than going it alone. And, as time goes on, I’m hopeful that we will continue to build momentum so that we can make this as frictionless and low cost as possible. Ultimately I think we can make this a good deal even for the larger property owners who would be receiving discounts based on their scale. We all have the same goal of a clean downtown. I’m confident that we’re putting together the best way to achieve that within our means.
MARK: Earlier today on social media, in response to my post last night, you attributed the garbage problem to “landlords lashing out because they are no longer being provided free trash service.” If that’s the case, do you foresee any opportunity for compromise? Do you think they’ll be happy with anything more than free?
ADAM: I don’t know that the DDA has much more it can provide toward a compromise. Not because we are unwilling, but because we are unable. The resources we have essentially boil down to two things. Our money and our staff’s time. The only benefit our staff can provide here is taking on the responsibility of managing the dumpsters and the related contracts, which is already happening. In terms of money, we are already very much overextended.
I don’t mean to be obstinate here, but we’re already putting as much of our resources into this as we possibly can. So, in the end, I would recharacterize this current solution as the compromise. When we set out, there were two ends to the spectrum. On one end, it was argued that the DDA should completely divest of their involvement in dumpsters altogether. And, on the other end, people were arguing that the DDA should continue to fully pay for the dumpsters. This is where our conversation started. And neither end of that spectrum is workable permanently. So the DDA is offering as much as it can: ongoing management of the dumpster contracts and maintenance. And, in return, we’re asking for what we cannot provide: the money to pay for the dumpster service.
Further, I don’t expect we’ll cover 100% of costs with the fees that we’re charging. And, as I said earlier, I’m committed to not making a profit off this. So this isn’t some money grab, and the goal here is not to free up money for other expenditures. The goal here is to keep these dumpsters available and in use.
MARK: One last thing, speaking of other uses for DDA funds. It’s been suggested by some that this is happening because the City recently took over the management of the DDA in order to access the organization’s revenue stream, which comes directly from the incremental tax increase we’ve seen in the DDA district since 1983, when the district was established. According to these folks, the City wanted that money for other things, took over the DDA, and began reallocating dollars away from critical services, like garbage collection. Do you see how people might think this is the case?
ADAM: I do see how people can think this, but it’s not accurate. The City has no control over the DDA’s budget or any other decision making. The agreement that diverted some DDA revenue back to the City was agreed upon by both the City and the DDA, and is the result of both parties recognizing just how drastically tight money is in our City. While the City and DDA do communicate and listen to one another, we are distinct decision making bodies. Members of City staff do also function as DDA staff, but they’re not involved in decision making. To date this has been a solidly positive development for the DDA. Our outreach efforts have improved drastically, our budget organization is improving, and, in general, we’ve become a more organized and effective body. In fact, I would not have considered the ongoing management of the dumpsters feasible until the City staff took over management of the DDA.
MARK: Earlier you mentioned that the DDA budget has shrunk because of a deal you’ve entered into with the City, under which the DDA contributes $60,000 annually to the City, and the City, in turn, does a number of things that the DDA had done in the past. Do I have that right?
ADAM: This is correct. The net change in revenue for the DDA was approximately -$60,000. (Again, I don’t have exact numbers in front of me. I just working from memory here.)
MARK: Can you tell us specifically what the City does for that $60,000?
ADAM: The downtown police officer’s salary, and pedestrian trash removal (the green trash cans on sidewalks) are the two line items highlighted in the agreement between the City and DDA.