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Survey results shape future of Transfer Station

County commissioners got their first glimpse Wednesday at the results of a survey designed to assess how residents utilize the Carlton County Transfer Station, as well as what changes they would like to see - or not see - in the future.

Heather Cunningham, director of Zoning and Environmental Services, presented the survey results at the regular session of the county board, reporting that 385 residents completed the survey during the month of November.

"We were expecting possibly 200 to respond, so we were pretty pleased with the outcome," said Cunningham.

Cunningham explained the survey was posted both on the county website as well as at the Transfer Station itself.

"I even went out and worked the gate myself one day in order to allow our employee time to survey customers," said Cunningham.

The survey was developed in consort with the Solid Waste and Recycling Committee as a precursor to making changes to the efficiency, transparency and security of the operation. The changes became necessary, in part, after the alleged theft of some $1 million by long-time Transfer Station employee Joanne Wappes, who is currently facing criminal charges.

Cunningham said the purpose of the survey was two-fold - to allow Transfer Station customers to get their ideas out in the open and to serve as an educational tool to explain to customers more about the pricing structure and what options are available.

Survey results showed that about half of respondents utilize the Transfer Station 2-6 times a month and about a third of them access it more than 12 times a year.

"It showed us that most of our customers represent repeat business," Cunningham said.

Further, the survey showed that some 66 percent of the typical waste brought to the Transfer Station is household garbage, while about 21 percent is construction and demolition waste.

The typical amount of waste brought by a customer in a single visit is one to three containers, though many arrive with pickup loads.

Of those who visit the Transfer Station, the survey showed that some 70 percent pay in cash, 20 percent by check and only 10 percent by credit card. Those figures set the stage for the following question, "Are you opposed to eliminating cash as a payment method at the Transfer Station?"

"Eliminating cash transactions would reduce the checks and balances that this office would need to conduct in order to maintain both integrity and security at the Transfer Station," Cunningham explained to the board at an earlier meeting.

She reported that while 57 percent said they would have no problem with the elimination of cash as a method of payment, 43 percent indicated they would be opposed to it - a figure high enough for the county to sit up and take notice.

When asked what additional services customers would like to see offered at the Transfer Station, among those listed were food waste collection (which Cunningham said should "certainly be doable"), scrap metal recycling (unlikely due to the layout of the facility), year-round florescent bulb recycling (also "doable"), longer hours at the Household Hazardous Waste Facility (unlikely because the facility is in an unheated shed and Cunningham added the county is "lucky to have one at all," since many counties don't) and more options for recycling, such as shredded paper (unlikely because it's too messy), box board (which already exists), office paper (which Cunningham said needs to be taken to one of the recycling centers) and Styrofoam (which she explained can't be recycled because the process could release carcinogens).

Among additional comments made by survey respondents, some suggested an awning be installed over the cashier's window to deflect water that drips off the shed's metal roof. Others opposed the use of a punch card-style voucher system, some demanded better customer service and some once again voiced their opposition to the elimination of cash payments.

After thoroughly going over the survey results, Cunningham laid out a list of seven recommendations to the board:

* The rate schedule for waste disposal should be posted to the right of the cashier's booth so customers know exactly how they are being charged.

* An electronic display sign should be installed so customers can see their charges as they are being entered by the cashier.

* A system of food waste collection should be implemented. Cunningham explained that the Western Lake Superior Sanitary System currently has a composting facility that the county could partner with in order to offer this service. She said customers would be required to put their food waste in pink compostable bags and drop them off at the Transfer Station, where haulers would be hired to pick them up weekly and take them to Duluth.

* A year-round system of florescent bulb recycling should be implemented.

* An awning should be installed over the cashier's window.

* An adjusted rate schedule should be implemented. Cunningham explained that although the facility must maintain the same price per ton, the committee felt the balance of the pricing schedule should include more options.

"Our current rate structure indicates that all loads above two containers will be charged by the vehicle rather than the container," she said. "This has created some confusion with our customers." She said in the past the price of a load of waste has at times appeared to customers to be more of a judgment call than adherence to an actual rate structure, since it is sometimes difficult to determine what constitutes a car load, a station wagon load, a pickup load, a trailer load or a van load. Under the new plan, the per container charge would be expanded to include up to four containers for 20 gallon containers and expanded up to six containers for 32 gallon containers. Anything above that would then go to the vehicle rate. Cunningham said this new plan should actually save customers money. "Overall, our goal has been to avoid any price increases and reduce subjectivity," she said.

* The facility should continue to accept cash payments. Cunningham said if this form of payment is important to nearly half the customers, it should be retained. She added with a grin, "One of them commented to us, 'Figure out how to keep cash - it's not rocket science!' And that's true, we can figure it out."

Cunningham explained the ultimate hope is to increase both security and transparency at the Transfer Station through the coordinated efforts of the State Auditor's office, the county auditor's office and the Zoning and Environmental Services Office, including:

* The continuation of periodic "surprise" cash counts at the facility;

* Continued utilization of the recently installed security cameras;

* Clearly posted gate fees and actual charges;

* Adherence to the adjusted rate schedule; and

* The utilization of two part-time cashiers instead of just one full-time employee in order to maintain segregation of job duties and a system of checks and balances.

At the time this issue of the Pine Journal went to press, the county board had not yet taken action on the recommendations. Cunningham said if approved, the adjusted rate structure would take effect Jan. 1, 2014, with the other changes soon to follow.