Looking to reduce burning, Merriam council advances idea of trial for city-wide limb pickup

Merriam is the only city in northeast Johnson County that still allows open leaf and limb burning.
Merriam is the only city in northeast Johnson County that still allows open leaf and limb burning.

As part of efforts to reduce the appeal of burning leaves and dead tree limbs in the city, the Merriam council on Monday directed staff to flesh out potential plans for piloting a city-wide limb pickup program.

Merriam is the only city in northeast Johnson County that still allows the open burning of dead leaves and branches. And while there appears to be little appetite on the council to make burning illegal, city leaders have long sought ideas to reduce the frequency with which residents set fire to their yard waste.

“I think we’re doing it to try to make a cleaner city,” said Mayor Ken Sissom of the idea, “and we do that through improving air quality.”

Two of the city’s four wards had already organized their own neighborhood level limb collections. Al Frisby, who helped put together the Ward II collection, said giving residents a chance to get rid of refuse that had been piling up in their yards for months or years had a noticeable impact on the aesthetics of the ward.

Still, there was little consensus among the council as to how a limb pickup should be administered. Though members of the council mostly agreed that a limb pickup program shouldn’t take the place of one of the existing large-item pickup days, they had a wide range of opinions about how labor should be handled and whether the cost should be born by the city or by individual residents.

City staff initially proposed that the pickup be handled internally, with public works staff splitting the chore of going house-to-house to collect the dead limbs and then processing them through a rented chipper or grinder over a period of days. They requested an additional $20,000 for fiscal year 2016 to cover those costs. Some on the council, however, said they wanted to see estimates for what it would cost for an outside contractor to handle the initiative, worrying that adding the responsibility to the public works department’s to-do list would put stress on their resources.

Councilor Nancy Hupp said she was concerned that if the city tried the limb pickup service, it would become something residents would expect and a cost the city would have to bear for years.

But Sissom suggested that such programs would be a way to deliver value back to Merriam homeowners for their tax dollars. Noting that given the property tax lid bill that’s come out of Topeka — which was widely opposed by Johnson County and city elected officials — it would be a risky proposition to consider lowering the mill rate as a way to give back to residents, Sissom said he felt such programs had merit in increasing livability.

As part of its efforts to improve air quality and reduce burning, the city has also formalized an agreement with Benjamin Lawn and Landscape to administer a voluntary curbside leaf pickup program. Residents will have the option to have Benjamin come to their house twice this fall on Tuesday, Nov. 1 and Tuesday, Nov. 29. The cost to the homeowner for the first pickup would be $38. The cost for the second pickup would be $49. Homeowners can pay a flat fee of $66 if they want to participate in both pickups.

Staff will present the council with more detailed options on a possible limb pickup program in the coming weeks.