May 3, 2013

Trash talk

Something happened on the way to creating a garbage district in Bedford, an idea born from the desire to bring single-stream recycling to Bedford, long a cost-efficiency and green goal for consumers and environmentalists. In a letter to the editor last week a Katonah resident urged us to find out what was really behind the about-face. From an environmental “ah-ha!” moment in January to virtual oblivion in April, what happened to make the town do a 180 from promoting the garbage district to outright rejecting it in less than three months? She was not the only one to wonder.

Bedford 2020 is a nonprofit organization consulted by Bedford to help officials reach its goal of cutting the town’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020. Town supervisor Lee Roberts is the group’s secretary.

In January, members of Bedford 2020 asked the town government to initiate rules requiring garbage haulers to practice single-stream recycling, which allows residents to place all of their recyclables, including paper, metals and plastics, in one container for collection. The materials are later sorted at a processing plant by workers and complex machinery. The town board discussed forming a garbage district served by a single, private hauling company, mandating single-stream recycling, and providing facilities to do so.

“It’s a net win for the town because the town will receive greater revenues,” said Ellen Rouse Conrad, co-president of Bedford 2020, at the January meeting. “It’s a net win for the residents because their costs will go down and recycling will go up. This gives us an opportunity to lead into zero waste, which over the next 10 years is something we are all going to want to do as a community.”

But even at the time there were concerns. Bedford’s public works commissioner Kevin Winn said at the hearing that billing from the town could be problematic because hauling costs could count as revenues levied, which are restricted by New York’s 2 percent tax cap prohibiting a municipality from raising taxes by 2 percent or the rate of inflation each year, whichever is less.

At the same meeting, councilman Francis T. Corcoran questioned whether it was appropriate for the town to contract out to one garbage hauler, forcing out the others that do business in Bedford.

Nevertheless, the town moved forward. Bedford 2020 hired an attorney to deal with concerns about the proposed waste district’s impact on the tax cap.

Then, about three months later, at a board meeting on April 17, the town suddenly announced it was dropping the idea of a garbage district. The plan was scrapped after area haulers and the town entered into an agreement to increase recycling efforts.

“You should rest assured that everyone will remain with the residential carters that currently operate in our town,” said Ms. Roberts at the public hearing. “This week we have met with them, outlined the goals that the town would like to see happen, and they have agreed to all of them and become our partners.”

This dramatic change of plan seemed to come from out of the blue. Or did it?

After the waste district plans were announced, reaction from the industry was fast and furious. County Waste and City Carting are the two major hauling companies for private residences left in Bedford. City Carting recently merged with Mayfield, Bria Carting and Somers Sanitation. Their Representatives voiced their opposition to the garbage district from the git-go, predicting that residents would reap little benefit and small carters would be swallowed up by larger companies with greater resources.

Their theme was a David versus Goliath battle, the little guys against big business, and a matter of consumer choice versus government control. In addition, the public had little appetite for the change.

Letters sent to the supervisor reveal the mood of Bedford residents.

“Please keep trash collection a free market system,” Bedford Hills resident Lara Lebrun wrote to Ms. Roberts. “Your proposal will only end with corruption and a very unhappy customer base.”

“I want to voice my extreme displeasure and concern that you are contemplating requiring a single garbage collect for Bedford,” said Peter Hennesy of Bedford to Ms. Roberts and members of the town board.

Former congresswoman Sue Kelly wrote the supervisor: “I strongly oppose your garbage initiative ... Nanny government should have no place in Bedford.”

Susan Carlson of Bedford told the board, “Our family strongly opposes taking our right away to choose a carrier.  ... I’m supportive of good public policy, but this is taking it too far.”

Jillian Cleveland, Peter Grunebaum, Rob Schiltz, Douglass Bermingham, S. Parker Gilbert, Charles Tisi and many others sent similar letters to the supervisor and the town board.

With vows that the local haulers would ramp up their operations to make recycling easier and more productive, the argument in favor of the district gained steam. Reports of failed garbage districts elsewhere — notably Mahopac — also stirred sentiment.

“Please leave my garbage alone,” said Bedford’s Sal DiCarlo in an email to the supervisor and board.

It is telling that at Katonah’s village forum on Monday night, garbage and single-stream recycling were off the menu. Bedford 2020, which started that ball rolling, was focused on the organization’s first electric and fuel-efficient car show at Grand Prix in Mount Kisco, a success by any measure.

As for a new waste district in Bedford, don’t hold your breath. Big flaws in our current recycling methods still remain. The goal of single-stream recycling can and should still be met. How we go about it is a matter for future discussion that must bring haulers, residents, the town and environmentalists together in a cooperative manner.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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