Rockville officials are considering asking residents to give up the cherished tradition of backyard trash pickup and instead haul their own trash to the front of the house or to the curb.
Everyone would have to use the same 96-gallon, wheeled containers, instead of the long-accepted, anything-goes approach of cans or bags, lids or no lids, placed outside the back door.
Twice-weekly garbage collection would be abandoned in favor of once-a-week pickups, under a proposed program.
"Rockville has had a very rare system here," city spokesman Neil H. Greenberger said. "Over many years, people have become very spoiled and cozy about it."
Last week, the City Council voted unanimously to test the proposed changes before making a final decision. Beginning in March, a pioneering group of 778 households in the Hungerford and Monument neighborhoods near the town center will spend nine months taking their trash to the curb. Twice during the pilot study, participants will provide city officials with written feedback on the experience, along with suggestions for improvements.
In a show of esprit de corps, Mayor Larry Giammo and council member Susan R. Hoffmannwill be among the pilot participants.
The pilot program followed more than a year of study. The council conducted public forums and hired a consultant, whose report said that fewer than 5 percent of jurisdictions nationally still send trash collectors around to people's back yards.
If the city of Rockville abandons backyard trash collection, it won't be for at least a year, city officials said.
City leaders are at odds over the issue, and citizens are by no means entirely supportive, according to Greenberger, who sat in on several of the public forums on garbage collection.
Council members Bob Dorsey and Anne M. Robbins have said publicly that they oppose the changes, but they supported the pilot program in last week's vote. Robbins was elected to a fourth term in November in part based on her campaign pledge to keep twice-weekly trash pickup.
Some city officials contend that backyard pickup is an anachronistic luxury that is no longer affordable. The city, with an estimated population of 50,000, employs its own garbage collection crews that haul trash away twice a week from 13,883 households. Recyclables are collected once a week. Private waste contractors provide the service in apartment buildings, high-rise buildings and commercial areas.
The city's fee, currently $29.50 a month per household, goes directly into a refuse fund, which is not mingled with other city operating funds. This year's refuse budget is $3.7 million. Officials say the monthly fee could increase to $40.50 a month by 2014 if the current collection system stays in place.
Under the proposed system, rates would still go up but not as much, to an estimated $35 a month. City officials attribute part of the rising costs to low recycling rates among residents and the need to pay higher landfill costs.
Another reason for the increase is the rising cost of labor, according to Giammo. Trash crews perform backbreaking work that leads to high rates of injury and absenteeism, as well as high turnover, he said.
"The big thing with us is, the way we collect garbage is extremely antiquated and labor-intensive," Giammo said. "To have guys basically walking around with 100-gallon, 150-gallon barrels on their back, going house to house and walking it back to the truck, it leads to a lot of injuries, not surprisingly."
The proposed changes in garbage collection would automate some of the collection process and cut down on labor costs, reducing expenses by an estimated $381,000 a year, according to calculations prepared by the city's public works department.
Over the past year, large audiences have shown up at public forums on the garbage issue, with residents speaking for and against the changes, said Greenberger.
"The city has always prided itself on providing premium services on many things," he said. "And it's been great. Except that now the cost of these services, particularly trash removal, has spiraled. Council has heard from so many people on the cost and . . . felt that something ought to be done."
A public education campaign is underway to curtail rampant rumors about the new system.
"What we're facing now is folks who have heard we're doing the pilot, and folks aren't fully informed yet," Giammo said. "They have to come to understand we're only doing a pilot. We want to see what that experience is like and learn from it."