May 02, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ted Kramer

Observer Staff Writer

The controversial and perplexing issue of open burning and disposal of yard debris continues to perplex the La Grande City Council.

A proposal to ban open burning beginning next spring sparked considerable debate at Wednesdays council meeting. The proposal will be taken up again by the council June 6.

A related issue, to increase garbage fees by $2 a month to fund a yard waste depot program as an alternative to burning, was tabled pending the outcome of the burn ordinance and more certainty about additional increases in garbage rates due to the eventual closure of the Fox Hill landfill.

The citys Air Quality Commission has proposed that the city ban open burning beginning April 1, giving a proposed yard waste depot program time to work.

But Wednesday night the council could not find consensus on whether open burning should be banned or whether garbage rates should be increased to pay for an alternative.

On a 4-3 vote, the council defeated a motion by Doug Winn to reject the ban on open burning.

Were premature in the process, said Winn, whose proposal to reject the ban was supported by John Bozarth and Dana Wright. We need more work on alternatives before we consider mandating a fee or prohibition.

Councilors Joel Goldstein, Doyle Slater, Steve Clements and Mayor Colleen Johnson voiced support for giving further consideration to the proposal at the June 6 meeting. But they questioned if one burning season was enough time to measure alternatives before the ban takes effect.

Im not sure if I like the idea of an additional fee on garbage rates, Clements said. I like what the Air Quality Commission presented, but Im concerned about alternatives and if 11 months is enough transition time. Maybe we need two or three more burning seasons before the ban kicks in.

Opponents of the ban pointed to the fact that the city has not exceeded state environmental limits over the past two years and to a survey that showed 66 percent of respondents favoring some level of burning as opposed to a ban.

They suggested that alternatives be studied further and that there be stricter enforcement of the existing ordinance.

As a governing body we dont want to impose additional burdens on citizens in the form of higher garbage fees, Wright said.

Ban proponents said the irritation that results from burning is an acute problem and one that cant be measured by 24-hour averages.

Councilor Joel Goldstein said that burning is a health issue for some people. Its essential to breathe, not to burn, he said.

The proposed alternative for disposing of yard debris involves increasing garbage rates $2 a month. The increase would allow residents to dispose of yard debris at City Garbage Services Material Recovery Facility, where the debris would be composted.

Ron Larvik of City Garbage Service told the council the concept is workable, but he also revealed that additional rate hikes will be necessary to pay for closure of the landfill and shipping garbage to a regional landfill near Boardman.

Additional recycling at this point wont extend the life of the landfill, Larvik said. The costs associated with closure of the landfill and shipping the waste to Boardman havent been finalized. Of the $8 garbage fee customers now pay a month, $1 is for disposal. The disposal portion of the rate could climb to $4 a $3 increase, Larvik said.

City Manager Wes Hare suggested the council and citizens take more time to consider the cost of an alternative yard waste program because of other pending increases in the cost of garbage service.