Mandatory recycling in the city of Newton is nearly dead as the city commission chose Tuesday to explore creating a voluntary program in response to changes in recycling rules and fees at the county level.

The city commission did not set new rates or decide how the program's rates will be set. 

The commission could choose to only charge those residents who use the service or charge a flat fee to all sanitation customers. Voluntary recycling would mean changing the number of trucks on the road as well — with three trash trucks operated four days a week and one recycling truck four days a week.

City staff will prepare estimates for rate changes over the course of the next month.

A voluntary recycling program will mean a change to routes. The city would operate three trash trucks each day and cut down to one recycling truck each day. In addition, one staff member would be added to inspect recycling containers, looking for items that are not recyclables.

"Today we run four days ... and we are running two trash routes and two recycling routes each day of the week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday," said Suzanne Loomis, director of public works for the city of Newton. "Our guys are running four 10-hour days."

The program was estimated to cost about $102,900 by city staff — though those were called "rough" numbers based on 10% of residents choosing to recycle under the voluntary program.

"Is it safe to say that a year from now we would know better if the loads are better and how many people are doing it?" asked City Commissioner Clint McBroom. "That would give us a better number for 2021. ... We will know pretty quickly if people are going to do it."

City staff will prepare more cost analysis before the commission makes a final decision on fee increases.

At one time in the city, all recycling containers were inspected and those with items not eligible for recycling were rejected. Repeat offenders were ticketed and fined. The city did away with that practice when purchasing trucks with automated arms.

"When we first started recycling in 1999, everything was separated out and we had two different streams. Now it all goes in the same truck," Loomis said. "When that occurs, we are picking up these carts and dumping them into the recycling truck and everything is mixed. We do not have boots on the ground to look in the bin and determine 'has there been trash mixed into that bin.' "

Because of contamination of recyclables being dumped at the transfer station and negotiations between Harvey County and contractor Waste Connections, the county commission was faced with paying significantly higher fees for recycling, sorting and shipping services or scrapping recycling as a mandatory program altogether. The county and municipalities discussed the issue at the Harvey County Council of Governments before taking action.

That action included changing county ordinances to eliminate mandatory recycling, though recycling will be offered at the transfer station under contract with Waste Connections. The county also agreed to a disciplinary/fee structure to deal with contamination in the recycling brought to the sorting facility.

Under a new agreement, for any loads brought to the facility containing more than 10% contamination, the truck will be banned for 30 days. The second load of more than 10% would be subject to a $350 fee and an additional 30-day ban. Waste Connections is willing to not raise tipping fees that are in the current contract with the county through 2022.

"We do not want to go over that 10% (benchmark)," Loomis said. "We would expect that we will have load charges due to the new requirements and the county's ordinance."

As a result of that action, cities are faced with whether to continue recycling collections. Should cities choose to eliminate collections, residents can take their recycling to the transfer station on their own. There would be no fee for using the self-sort system at the transfer station.

Recyclable items include aluminum or steel food containers; plastic containers labeled one through seven used for food, soap, lotion or household cleaners; glass food and drink containers; clean pasteboard and mixed paper; and corrugated cardboard.

In other business, the commission:

• Administered the oath of office to Rod Kreie, Clinton McBroom and Richard Stinnett, who were elected to the commission in November.

• Recognized Glen Davis and Barth Hague, who each left the commission.

• Elected Leroy Keohn as mayor for 2020 and Rich Stinnett as vice mayor for 2020. 

• Approved a lease agreement for Ballard Aviation to use a building at the Newton City/County Airport for a storage facility.  he agreement will be presented to the county commission for approval at its next meeting.

• Approved a water line project to serve a commercial development on S. Kansas Avenue.

• Dissolved Channel 7.

• Agreed to approriate funds to contract a historic preservation officer and preserve historic preservation work at the city level.

• Appointed Kelly McElroy as interim city manager.