Before I say anything else: The Town of Vienna will continue to pick up your leaves every fall. Without fail. Nobody is talking about stopping leaf pickup. This is all about how the Town disposes of those leaves, once it gathers them.
This Monday (4/18/2022), Vienna Town Council will hold a conference session in which they will continue their discussion of alternative ways to collect and dispose of leaves. You can find the background materials at the link on this web page. My last posts on this topic were Post #1461, Post #1462, and Post #1463. And Post #1464
In this post, I want to make a simple point about the money costs and savings of what has been proposed. In particular, under what appears to be the most reasonable proposal (“Option 3, long haul”), the Town will pay out somewhat more to contractors than it does now. But it will be paid back more than twice the value of that in terms of Department of Public Works staff time and other resource costs that will be freed up for use in other ongoing tasks.
In effect, the greater efficiency of this new option, compared to the current approach, more-or-less allows the Town to obtain a modest amount of staff labor at less than half the normal cost.
It’s a unique opportunity for the Town to get an immediate two-to-one return on investment. For $61K worth of contracted services, the Town frees up $135K worth of Department of Public Works labor.
Details are given in the final section below.
In the 3/22/2022 Vienna Town Council meeting, there was an extensive discussion and public hearing on changing the way Vienna disposes of its leaves in the Fall. If you need the background, the best source is probably the staff presentation, available from the link on this Town of Vienna Granicus web page.
The issue is that the Town currently dumps, grinds, and mulches its leaves on a tract of land that is smack in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood.
Briefly, it’s noisy and it stinks. And between the multi-month period of leaf collection in the Fall, and the deliveries of “free” mulch in the Spring, that goes on for quite some time.
In effect, the Town of Vienna operates an industrial-scale waste disposal facility, seasonally, in the middle of an area zoned for and used as a residential area.
You might well ask, how can the Town operate an industrial facility in a residential area? That’s not a legally-allowed use of land that is zoned residential. The answer is that the Town long ago issued itself a “conditional use permit” to do that. And, hey presto, it was therefore legal for the Town to do this. And yet, everyone agrees that under no circumstances would the Town allow a private enterprise do to the same thing — place a noisy commercial operation in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood.
And just in case that legal self-dealing didn’t rub quite enough salt in the neighbor’s wounds, the land in question was labeled and used as park land for decades prior to this. In fact, most (but not all) on-line mapping services still label the tract in question by its traditional name, Beulah Road Park.
Source: Top map, USPS EDDM website, bottom map, Duck Duck Go search.
Unsurprisingly, the neighbors around that leaf dump/mulch-grinding facility objected. It has been an ongoing sore point for them.
But there were two new developments in the past couple of years.
First, at some point in the last campaign for Mayor of Vienna, the current Mayor seemed to have promised to do something about it. So, in theory, righting this situation is on the TOV government’s radar screen.
And, blessedly, the Town’s tub grinder died. This is the large and loud machine that is at the heart of the Town’s current approach, used to grind the leaves prior to mulching. I believe the repair is either impossible or uneconomic, and that a replacement device of the same size would now cost upwards of half-a-million dollars.
And that provided an opportunity for everybody to step back and reconsider how the Town goes about this. Particularly given that we have examples from both Fairfax County and from the Town of Herndon, both of whom manage to get rid of their leaves annually without trashing a residential neighborhood in the process.
Which, in turn, led to taking a hard look at the resources currently consumed by this process. Leading to the conclusion that the Town’s “free” mulch, which it literally will truck to your home for free, actually has an average cost of about $125 per truck load. Or — unsurprisingly — in the ballpark of what it costs local commercial mulch supply firms to supply it.
I went through all of that in my prior posts.
Option 3, long haul, and objections to it.
At the prior Town Council meeting/public hearing on this topic, it seemed like the “long haul” option had the most support. Under that approach the Town would simply haul the leaves directly to Loudoun Composting for disposal. The fully-allocated cost of that was $74K (or about 16 percent) cheaper than the current approach, and it would free up that eight-acre tract of land known as Beulah Road Park for some higher-valued use than being the in-town leaf dump.
That said, I noted a few possible sticking points that were raised:
- Some people wanted to keep the existing system with “free” mulch for Town residents. They were in the clear minority of those who showed up to speak.
- There was some uncertainty over the costs, and the possible impact of fuel cost increases. There was also concern if total fossil fuel use were to rise.
- There was some concern over how “robust” the approach of hauling the leaves directly to Loudoun Composting would be. E.g., could this be derailed by a traffic accident on I-66.
- Finally, there was concern that, while the fully-allocated cost of leaf collection would fall, the Town’s total budget costs would actually increase.
Objection 1: The end of “free” mulch
There’s no answer to that first objection that will leave the current mulch recipients happy. People like free stuff. Even if giving stuff away is ludicrously inefficient from an economic standpoint. And costs the taxpayers money.
But now that the Town knows that it has an average cost of $125 a load for that “free” mulch, it really has no business giving it away. The only justifiable solution is to charge a fair rate for it — meaning its own average cost of $125 a load.
To the extent that anyone still demands it at that price, the town could satisfy that demand by using Town trucks and personnel to obtain free Fairfax County mulch, from the I-66 transfer station, and bring that into Town. Or, better, cut a deal with Loudoun Composting to bring back a few loads of finished mulch, instead of deadheading back on each trip.
I’m sure that the people who get free mulch now will be unhappy with having to pay for it. But the Town can’t look at its own data showing an average cost of production of $125 per load, all-in, and continue to give that away. That’s not good governance.
My point is, if the Town will charge a reasonable rate for it, the demand for Town-supplied much will drop to a minimal level. Possibly zero. And there are any number of ways to provide finished mulch to the handful of citizens who will not give up the tradition of Town-supplied mulch, without resorting to large scale production of mulch within the Town of Vienna.
Objection 2: Fuel price increases matter, as does total fossil fuel use.
I went through most of the numbers in Post #1464. The upshot is that neither of these factors matters much.
All three options involve roughly the same number of truck-miles. Which is not a surprise, as the bulk of the miles under all three options is in trucking the leaves out to Loudoun County. If anything, this argues for doing the long haul with larger trucks, if possible. But I don’t think that’s possible, as those same trucks must be used to pick the leaves up off the streets.
It’s also easy enough to show that fuel prices are a minor consideration. First, I come up with a guess of about 1400 gallons of diesel burned in the trucks. That’s based on the mileage above, and a guess of 9 MPG average for the mix of Town trucks, based on mostly highway miles. Toss in another few hundred gallons for running the leaf vacuums, and surely the entire enterprise burns no more than 2000 gallons of fuel. At that rate, each $1 rise in the price of a gallon of fuel adds just $2000 to overall cost. That’s small enough to get lost in rounding error.
Objection 3: Is this process robust?
There’s really no way to find out until they try it. But my understanding is that Fairfax County does its own leaf pickups this way, with direct haul of the leaves to their final destination using contract truckers. I have to believe that if it works for Fairfax County, it should work for us.
Objection 4: Overall increase in budget.
That’s the subject of the next section.
Another look at the budget for Option 3, long haul
The points made in this section are simple.
Option 3 increases the Town’s overall budget because it requires the Town to spend about $61K on contracted services. But the Town has no plans to fire any Department of Public Works (DPW) staff to offset that, even if fewer total staff hours are required for leaf collection and disposal.
But, first, the amount of money we are discussing here is small, compared to the operating budget of the Vienna Department of Public Works. DPW should have no problem putting that freed-up staff time to productive use.
And, more importantly, because the new approach is so much more efficient, the Town gets a huge return-on-investment from that additional $61K spending on contracted costs. The Town doesn’t just get a dollar-for-dollar return. It’s not just substituting $61K of contract labor for $61K of staff labor. It gets that, and in additional it gets a return from adopting this more-efficient method for leaf collection and disposal. The greater efficiency of the new approach leverages that $61K investment in contracted services into $135K worth of DPW labor and other costs.
To get to the bottom line, those additional budget costs, in the form of truck rental and leaf disposal costs, generate a better-than-two-to-one return on investment. Putting that another way, assuming that there is productive work for DPW staff to do, the change in leaf collection effectively purchases that additional work at less than half the usual price.
If Vienna Town Council was happy to fund DPWs existing workload at its current average cost, they really shouldn’t balk at purchasing a little more maintenance and repair at half-price.
First, let me re-arrange Town staff’s cost numbers for the leaf proposals, to show the breakout of costs that are “internal” to the Town of Vienna, and cost that are paid to external vendors.
Source: Base data taken from TOV staff presentation at the 3/22/2022 Town Council meeting.
(Note the current approach has $39K in combined grinding and disposal fees. The two new approaches both have $39K in leaf disposal fees. So that’s a wash, in terms of contracted costs. As a result, the only difference in total contracted cost is the trucking cost under Option 3.)
At issue is the figure in yellow — a $61,000 increase in payments to contractors and other entities. The argument is that because the Town will not (or cannot) cut DPW staff in response to these changes, it’s going to have to keep paying the staff and pay this additional $61,000.
First, put this in perspective by comparing it to the existing TOV DPW budget. In FY 21-22, the TOV DPW operating budget was a just about $16 million (Town of Vienna adopted 2021-22 budget, page 72). This $61K amounts to about a 0.4% budget increase in the DPW budget.
Second, now focus on the $135K reduction in costs internal to the Town of Vienna, under Option 3. This means that in return for streamlining the leaf collection and disposal process, and shelling out $61K in contractor costs, DPW now has $135K worth of resources (mostly, labor) freed up, available for other work around town.
The $61K increase in the total budget buys the Town $135K worth of labor services from Town of Vienna employees. These are the services no longer needed with the streamlined leaf collection and disposal process. In effect, by going for Option 3, it obtains those labor services for less than half-price.
I think that’s the right way to view this. And I think that’s a good deal, no matter how you slice it. As long as there is some productive work for DPW staff to be doing. And I don’t think that anybody in the TOV doubts that there is always work that DPW could be doing.
Through a series of happy circumstances, the Town has a chance to re-think its leaf collection and disposal process. And maybe, just maybe, rid a Vienna neighborhood of the burden the Town imposed on it two decades ago,
Option 3 looks like a clear win-win for the Town and the neighborhood. Not only does it liberate that eight-acre park to be a park again, it gives the Town the opportunity to obtain $135K worth of labor for a mere $61K investment in new funding for contracted services. (The difference between those two figures arises from the greater efficiency of Option 3 relative to the current approach).
Near as I can tell, the only individuals who will see a downside from this are those who currently obtain “free” (that is, taxpayer-paid) mulch from the Town. As an economist, my response to that is that the only defensibly Town position is that those who want that mulch should pay the Town’s average cost of production for it. And if any still do, I’d bet that the relatively modest remaining demand could be met by purchasing a few truckloads of finished mulch from Loudoun Composting, using the Town’s trucks to bring it back.
At that point, maybe Vienna should just do what Fairfax did for years, and put modest piles of mulch in the unused corners of a few parks. Those who want free Town mulch are welcome to drive up and shovel up a few trashcans of it, for use around the home. Free mulch would still be available. But the Town would be out of the business of spending tax dollars and staff time to truck multiple tons of mulch to the handful of Vienna families who will ask for it — as long as it’s free.