Curbside Recycling Doesn't Make the Cut in Kansas City

After a week of vigorous debate, Kansas City, Mo., council members voted against a proposal to implement curbside recycling — but not before focusing new attention on a decade-old issue.

Convinced that curbside recycling's time had come, City Councilman Jim Rowland introduced the proposal in late March, promising to deliver curbside recycling without raising taxes.

“It was the right thing to do,” says Rowland's spokeswoman. “The city has looked at curbside recycling for 10 years, and polls from the last vote indicated overwhelming support for the program.”

But other city council members were not convinced that Kansas City citizens were ready to sort their trash at the curb. In preliminary budget meetings, council members never once mentioned curbside recycling as a priority, says Councilman Evert Asjes. “Every year, the city auditor does a survey of citizens,” he adds, “and curbside recycling did not show up in that survey.”

This illustrates how people can read the same statistics in vastly different ways, says John Stufflebean, the city's director of environmental management. In a referendum conducted last August, 54 percent of Kansas City citizens voted against funding curbside recycling with a tax increase.

“One way of looking at it is that 46 percent of people voted for a tax increase to fund curbside recycling,” Stufflebean says. “To me that's pretty remarkable.”

Additionally, in a May 2000 survey, 93 percent of Kansas City residents said they were in favor of curbside recycling. However, they said that the city should pay for the service. “People were saying, this looks like double taxation,” Stufflebean notes, referring to a 1 percent tax increase approved in 1971 to fund solid waste services.

Taking these arguments into consideration, Rowland proposed paying for curbside recycling by streamlining city functions. For example, an “efficiency initiative” currently underway predicts that the city could save as much as $440,000 per year by asking some employees not to drive home in city cars. And, cutting the recycling drop-off centers' hours could save the city an additional $160,000, the proposal said.

These funds, combined with savings from approximately 30 job cuts, could pay for the first six months of curbside recycling, which would cost $1.5 million, Rowland concluded.

“We must break the strangle hold that the politics of the past have on our city,” he told his peers prior to the final budget vote. “What we need today are new politics that have the characteristics of innovation, courage, perseverance and a strong sense of urgency.”

But some council members were wary of Rowland's “urgency.” They had spent many months putting the budget together and were not pleased when Rowland introduced a significant change only eight days before the final vote. “It was just bad timing,” Asjes says. However, “it brought focus to the issue, and it will come up another time.”

That time may come sooner than expected, if Rowland has anything to say about it. “[Councilman Rowland] will continue to look for funding even before the next budget cycle,” his spokeswoman says. “If there are any funds available, believe me, he will be working to set those aside.”

In proposing new cuts, Rowland may have to answer concerns from council members who worry that curbside recycling could kill other city programs.

“The city manager already has identified cuts that could be made,” Asjes says. “He doesn't feel he could cut any more positions without cutting programs.”

Meanwhile, many citizens have written to express enthusiasm for curbside recycling, Rowland's spokeswoman says. “We've received about 300 e-mails from people who supported the program, and only six e-mails from people who weren't supportive.”