CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With a $1.5 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year's budget, Charleston city officials are eyeing what could be cut. Under scrutiny is the city's longstanding garbage bag giveaway.
Councilman Chris Dodrill, a Republican who holds an at-large seat, said the city could cut at least $250,000 from the budget by no longer giving trash bags to city residents.
On the other side of the debate are Mayor Danny Jones and other officials who say the city would risk having trash in its streets if the garbage bag program were killed.
Dodrill broached the subject during a recent Finance Committee meeting.
"I think this hole in the budget underscores the need to eliminate these expenditures," he said.
The trash bag distribution dates back to the municipal refuse strike of 1972.
Garbage trucks were not running during the strike, and city leaders came up with a way to get residents to bring refuse to collection points — offer them free trash bags.
"I just don't think continuing this program is smart government," Dodrill said. "The garbage strike was a long time ago."
The city gives black trash bags to residents who have paid their refuse bills, Public Works Director Gary Taylor said. The city also distributes clear trash bags for recyclables or yard waste.
The city spent about $350,000 for the clear and black trash bags distributed last October and September.
Dodrill would like to see the city continue to distribute the clear bags but eliminate the black bags. This would save about $250,000 a year.
Councilman Marc Weintraub, a Democrat who represents an East End ward, has wanted to eliminate trash bag distribution for about nine years.
Weintraub also thinks the city could find better ways to spend the money.
"I just think this is a wasteful expenditure," he said.
Weintraub said he has heard opponents say unbagged trash would be thrown in city streets.
"I think people are more responsible than that now," he said. "I think it's a totally different mindset than back in the 1970s."
Councilman Courtney Persinger, 15th Ward Republican, also thinks city leaders should look at eliminating the program or reducing its scope. He said city leaders could look at giving bags away to those who financially qualify.
This would be a program similar to the financial assistance given to individuals who need help paying their energy bills, he said.
Persinger also does not buy the argument that eliminating the giveaway would equal more trash in city streets.
"I think people who live in Charleston are proud of the city," he said. "And people that throw their trash out in the streets are probably going to do it even if we give them free trash bags."
Not everyone agrees with the councilmen.
Mayor Jones believes more trash would end up on streets and sidewalks.
He also believes the bag giveaway has another benefit — improving working conditions for refuse employees. Many residents used to toss garbage into cans without bagging it first.
This often made the cans heavy and increased the risk of injury to refuse employees.
"I think we'd see an increase in our workers comp claims," Jones said.
The mayor also thinks litter would proliferate around the city.
"I just think we'd have trash everywhere," he said.
Certain parts of the city, like the West Side, would be affected more than other areas because of the high number of renters living there, Jones said.
The Rev. James Ealy, a Democratic council member who represents a West Side ward, agreed with Jones.