The driver of a Russo Sanitation truck learned last week that picking up residential trash in New Paltz without a license is a serious matter; he found himself handcuffed and warned that the garbage truck would be impounded if he were caught doing it again.
As of June of last year, the town and village of New Paltz only allow a single company, County Waste, to provide residential service. The idea behind the law was to cut down the number of garbage trucks on the roads, which would reduce wear and tear and reduce carbon emissions, and to reduce the rates paid by customers. After a bidding process, Clifton Park-based County Waste was awarded a five-year contract.
But until driver Michael Russo was ticketed March 25, the law hadn’t been enforced. The vocal contingent of residents who have been opposed to the single-hauler law since its inception seized on the ticketing — particularly the handcuffing — as an opportunity to paint the law as an example of local government overreach and renew the call for repeal.
Joe Russo, owner of Russo Sanitation, admits he was aware of the law, but it appeared to him it wasn’t being enforced. He decided to continue providing service to customers in the “gray area” between residential and commercial. Specifically, there’s been confusion as to how rental properties are classified; New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder admitted he misunderstood how it worked when he joined others at Village Hall the day after the driver was cited. Trustee Dennis Young, who spearheaded the single-hauler initiative, later said that he believes the law is clear: when individual containers are used, it falls under residential, but big dumpsters are considered commercial and not included. When he was reached for comment, Russo questioned that judgement, noting that sometimes multiple smaller containers are deployed because site conditions preclude a larger one.
Russo said he thought if the company was cited, he’d pay the fine and that would be that. Neither he nor any of the elected officials who have spoken about this case expected that drivers would be placed in cuffs, but Snyder said that it’s standard procedure outside of a traffic violation to do that to ensure the safety of the officer. Russo said his brother was embarrassed and concerned what people might think; Snyder could not address that directly, but confirmed that breaking a village ordinance is “less than a violation” and not something which would end up on a criminal record. The chief said that this appearance ticket was issued because residents in Ohioville had complained, and that repeated offenses would indeed lead to impounding the vehicle and processing at the station instead of in the street.
“We get photos of cans e-mailed to us,” said Snyder. Police officers aren’t particularly interested in enforcing this law, but “we don’t get to pick and choose” which to enforce. On the other hand, allegations Russo made that the officer was rude will be investigated. “We’re not to be bullying people,” Snyder said.
Russo, who wonders if this law is constitutional, later agreed to a plan for removing the company containers from the 75 residential household accounts in the town. He says it’s a large enough share of his company’s business that “it’s going to hurt.” Moreover, the bookkeeping challenge of issuing refunds for advance payments will likely cost him in additional labor hours. The business owner said he was touched by the amount of support shown to him and his employees in the wake of this incident.
How we got here
Mayor Tim Rogers quickly organized a “conversation” at Village Hall to talk about the issues with MaryAnn Tozzi, who is a leader in the free-hauling movement. He and Tozzi both grew up in the community, and have had lunch from time to time to discuss issues of concern. In the interest of defusing what he saw as largely unproductive sniping via Facebook in a transparent fashion, he invited anyone available and interested to join them. Several residents joined Rogers, Young and Snyder to make a group of close to a dozen in all.
During that session, Young explained that the idea was first floated by then-mayor Jason West and trustee Ariana Basco, whose request for proposal (RFP) received no bids. One of the three bids received this time around was from small business, he said, but the County Waste bid was a third lower per household than either of the others. “Most people who have contacted me upset about the law, have become less upset when they found out they’d be saving money,” Young recalled. Some residents have asserted that their savings were negligible, or even that they are now paying more per month, but overall it’s a savings, according to Young.
Once the law was in effect and the legal wranglings were quelled, company owners were “given every opportunity to pull out,” Young said. Chief Snyder backed that up, noting that Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi had personally called the owners of all companies about which reports had been received, advising of the law’s existence.
The rationale for this law is not primarily an economic one, although that’s a much-touted benefit. The recommendation to limit hauling to a single company in a given municipality was in a 2009 state comptroller report, and the cost savings are seen as extending to the taxpayers generally by reducing wear and tear on local roads. Local leaders largely push the environmental angle: it limits how many days noisy collections occur, which also theoretically reduces slow-moving traffic during commuting hours, as well as diesel exhaust. While limiting other heavy vehicles like heating oil trucks would carry a similar benefit for road wear, it’s only garbage collection that occurs on a regular schedule. Limit the number of haulers, and the number of garbage trucks on a given local street drops as well. Limiting moving or oil companies would not carry the same benefit, for example, because the nature of the business is more about need than schedule. Licensing landscaping businesses might impact the number of trucks parked in inconvenient places, but they aren’t as heavy and don’t impact the roads as much.
Rogers said that local officials have received “lots of positive feedback” regarding reduced number of trucks on local roads. A direct contract between governmental body and trash-hauling company might be considered in the future, but he pronounces this “hybrid” plan a success. Tozzi believes that the same benefits could be achieved by people organizing their neighbors and negotiating a preferred deal with representatives of a particular company. “Many people told us they’ve tried,” the mayor explained, but it’s a case where it’s only successful because of the governmental intervention.
Free to choose
Even some who acknowledge that they save money with the current arrangement don’t like being forced to save money. The mindset echoes campaigns to support local business, wherein it’s recognized that this often means paying more money for a particular product or service. Ed Burke told Rogers and Young that if he’s not going to be able to make that choice, then garbage pickup should become a mandated municipal service, like it is in Walden. In that community, the hauler of choice visits every household, and the cost is included in the tax bill. No one is able to opt out, as they can in New Paltz by not signing a County Waste contract. On the other hand, no one has to write a check to that company, which is why Burke is not alone in preferring that option. Convenient Deli owner Kathy Frizzell raised that very concern when the single-hauler plan was first floated.
Despite numerous discussions online and no less than 15 New Paltz Times articles about the issue since Young took up its banner, some residents feel “completely uninformed,” according to Marjorie Wiener, who started circulating a petition among her neighbors when she found out about it. During the lunch chat, she told leaders that she felt “strongly about freedom of choice,” and that such a momentous decision should have been subject to a referendum.
“But that’s what the government does,” said Rogers: arrange for services such as plowing roads (but not shoveling sidewalks, which in a “complete streets” communities like New Paltz are intended to be treated as an equally important part of the road), policing and other services for which residents are not given a direct choice. Referenda are expensive, he noted, and thus not a practical way to resolve every issue. “This is not at all a novel concept,” he said, later adding that voters do get the final choice in that they can replace officials whose decisions are dissatisfying.
Burke is of the thought that if this is “what the government does,” the cost should be on the tax bill. Tozzi said she also wouldn’t be as opposed under that arrangement.
Young doesn’t think people are uninformed; he thinks they either like saving money, or don’t care. He recalled that Tozzi “busted her hump” trying to stir up opposition when the strategy was being considered, but failed to get many people involved.
Janelle Peotter, who also attended the information lunchtime discussion, had a different take on the single-hauler plan. “This is totally the right choice,” she said, after researching the issue; for her the environmental benefits are worthwhile “even without saving money.” Head of the New Paltz Climate Smart Task Force, Peotter said that every effort must be made to stem the coming problems, even inconvenient ones. Those concerned about traffic should wonder what traffic might be like when residents of coastal areas are forced by flooding to move farther inland. “[I’m] glad that there is leadership” on this issue, she said.
Where Peotter finds that many people are happy with things as they stand, Tozzi feels that “no one” is. Others at the table were similarly unmoved: Wiener said that if it’s a choice between greenhouse gas emissions and freedom of choice, choice is preferable in her mind.
Tozzi and Wiener were clearly unhappy with what’s being described as a “police state” in which drivers for unlicensed haulers can be pulled over. Online chatter similarly includes opposition to word a driver was handcuffed, in particular. Comparisons to both far-right fascism and far-left socialism have been included in the online discourse, as well as efforts to discuss the single-hauler law in context with public opposition to current immigration-enforcement policy and its impact on local residents, including business owner Luis Martinez, detained in Orange County since January and nearly deported earlier in March. The question that’s posed there is about which laws should be obeyed without vocal opposition. Perhaps coincidentally, the online petitions to repeal single-hauler and release Martinez were both launched on the same day.