Hugh Reynolds: The return of the Ulster landfill?

Break out those old “Dump Here? Never!” signs. They’re looking to site a landfill in Ulster County again.

In its continuing efforts to capture the county’s garbage supply — officially called “flow control” — and thereby become the financially independent agency initially authorized by the state legislature in 1986 — the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) is listening to some legislators who advocate an in-county landfill.

From a fiscal standpoint, it might make sense. Some $8.5 million — more than half the RRA’s projected budget for 2013 — will be spent on shipping county garbage all the way to a landfill outside the City of Rochester.


But while an in-county landfill has some obvious advantages, it will be a political minefield. Witness the turmoil when the legislature attempted to site a landfill in the 1980s in Saugerties. Those “Dump Never!” signs are still sitting around Sawyertown garages. (Somewhere in my files I must have the tape of “Dump, Dump the Mega Dump,” a huge hit in Saugerties in the day. It’s a catchy tune, and easy to dance to.)

Flow control, if approved by the county legislature, would allow the agency to become self-supporting in a year or two, says RRA Director Tim Rose, relieving the county of almost $3 million (projected for 2013) in annual subsidies.

Garbage re-emerged as a major issue after the RRA increased its demand for county subsidy from this year’s $1.4 million to a projected $2.9 million in 2013. I use the word “demand” because by law the county has to pay the subsidy, officially called “the net service fee.”

At that, the more than doubling of the net service fee might have been clever gamesmanship on the part of the RRA board of directors. Shock waves in both the legislative and executive branches could be felt all the way to Kerhonkson.

The politics of flow control

To many observers other than the RRA’s private competition, flow control, legalized in 2006, would seem a no-brainer. But when politics rears its ugly head, things get complicated.

Understandably, the county executive views rising RRA subsidies with alarm. To put the subsidy in perspective, state law limits the county (and other municipalities and school districts) to a 2 percent annual increase in property tax levies, which for the county means about $3.6 million next year. By handing over 80 percent of his tax cap to the RRA, the county executive would in effect be working for an agency over which he has no control.

Better the RRA, with flow control, work for the county exec, which seems to be the direction the man who always has a plan is heading. For several months now, Mike Hein has been calling on the legislature, which by charter controls the RRA through its appointments to its five-member governing board, to do something.

While Carl Belfiglio, chairman of the legislature’s RRA oversight committee, jawboned options from selling the agency to adopting flow control, to establishing special garbage districts, legislature Chairwoman Terry Bernardo put together a 13-member study commission of stakeholders to recommend action. It probably wouldn’t have worked —13 people! — but at least it was something.

Apparently, that wasn’t the something the executive had in mind, i.e., rival Bernardo forging a solution. Over a weekend, Hein telephoned and cajoled enough legislators to scuttle the commission idea, dealing Bernardo an embarrassment she did not take well.

In its collective wisdom and after much circular debate, the legislature replaced the cumbersome 13-member commission by combining two seven-member standing legislative committees. Rich Gerentine’s Ways and Means Committee will join with Belfiglio’s Environmental, Energy and Technology Committee to (maybe) create new policy. Gerentine, the legislature’s senior member and an old hand on garbage issues, was elected chairman of the ad-hoc study committee at its first meeting this Monday.

The meeting, hastily called at the awkward hour of 4 p.m. — “Some of us work!” Mary Beth Maio complained — drew 12 of 14 committee members.

With nine members of the 23-member legislature elected for two terms or less, this “quagmire” (in Belfiglio’s phrase) will demand a steep learning curve.

For useful reading, I recommend freshman Legislator Ken Wishnick’s extensive list of questions to consider and, more importantly, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s RRA Report No. 2 titled “What’s the Plan?” In a reflection of legislative inertia, Auerbach raised that question on Feb. 25, 2011.

Time now being of the essence, there is the distinct possibility of the executive riding to the rescue … do I hear a distant trumpet, see a white horse pawing at the ground? Cutting to the chase, I see Hein producing a plan that includes flow control, the elimination of county subsidies and producing 16 votes in the legislature to thwart an override attempt. Whether Hein also takes the occasion again to berate the “do-nothing legislature” remains to be seen.

Executive action

In a rare public flexing of muscle, the executive has declared the county Industrial Development Agency “confused” and out of bounds in its efforts to promote economic development. He hints at political motivation, which never occurs in the executive branch, since IDA members are appointed by the legislature.