The Ulster County comptroller’s efforts to gather information about operations at the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) could end up in court.
In a June 18 lawsuit filed in Ulster County Supreme Court, UCRRA Executive Director Timothy DeGraff claims Comptroller March Gallagher’s interest auditing the agency is political and started with a young man who has an “ongoing personal dispute” with one of the employees at UCRRA’s Kingston recycling facility at 999 Flatbush Road.
The “young man” is Don Markle III, 31, owner of a small dump trailer business. On May 3, he attended a meeting of the Ulster County Legislature’s Energy and Environment Committee to complain that he has repeatedly tried to buy compost at the agency’s facility to resell to clients looking for topsoil. Markle claimed that while he was limited to purchases of one or two tons of compost a day, UCRRA employee Willie Whittaker was regularly buying ten times that amount. That was a clear case of nepotism, Markle charged, since Whittaker’s brother Charles is Director of Operations at UCRRA.
At the meeting, county legislator Laura Petit of Esopus said she had been receiving similar complaints from constituents.
Gallagher says she too has heard “multiple [confidential] whistleblower and customer complaints” about the compost program, suggesting that it benefitted not the public but primarily “a single employee of UCRRA.” She told us she met with DeGraff as early as March 1 to discuss the compost program, as well as properties UCRRA had purchased that seemed to have no business purpose. She wanted to know why UCRRA charges less than it should for compost and sells it for “a fraction of market price.” She finds it “shocking” that the agency is not trying to maximize profits to offset the fees it charges the public and Ulster County businesses for waste disposal.
In the following weeks, Gallagher’s office demanded journal entries, scale logs and customer lists. When her deadlines were not met, she issued a subpoena. She says UCRRA has a contract with Ulster County for the composting operation and that makes her the auditing authority.
But UCRRA, which was set up as public authority to minimize political interference in garbage, maintains that it does not answer to the county comptroller but to the state comptroller and the NYS Authorities Budget Office. UCRRA attorney Jacob F. Lamme told us by email: “The UCRRA has nothing to hide, but it cannot comply with an illegal subpoena and stand by idly as the Comptroller seeks to expand her limited governmental powers. We believe her motivations here are purely political and, unfortunately, at the expense of the Ulster County taxpayers.”
The chairman of the Legislature, David Donaldson, says the comptroller’s subpoena of financial records may have “gotten people’s backs up.” The agency has turned documents related to compost sales over to Donaldson’s financial staff. He said last week that he’d forward them to Gallagher shortly.
Gallagher is convinced she’s on solid legal ground and maintains that a judge will confirm her jurisdiction as soon as July. Manna Jo Greene, chair of the Energy and Environment Committee, wants the agency to be transparent but believes that working together, the legislature, the RRA and the comptroller can identify and address any problems with the compost program or anything else.
Donaldson notes that no recovery agency is perfect – “there are always issues about garbage” – but he feels UCRRA is doing a pretty good job overall. Other issues have been raised in addition to the compost program. Donaldson acknowledges that on some days, a smell emanates from the Kingston facility and says that “UCRRA has not yet dealt with that adequately.”
The comptroller is also concerned that UCRRA is operating its facility in a “noxious manner,” spreading unpleasant odors to its neighbors. On June 9, she sent Greene a memo listing “numerous areas” where the Resource Recovery Agency is not meeting the terms of its contract, including failing to submit budgets on time. Greene believes that all the issues could be solved working cooperatively. UCRRA is, she says, doing a good job in many ways – like helping to address climate change with waste diversion – and she’s grateful to Gallagher for raising awareness of UCRRA’s contractual responsibilities.
Comptroller Gallagher seems to take a broad view of her office’s mandate to examine “how tax dollars are being spent, invested, protected, and collected.”
She says the UCRRA needs a “top to bottom shake-up” given the challenges ahead. The agency now trucks garbage to the Seneca Meadows landfill in Waterloo, which is scheduled to close in 2025. Gallagher is skeptical that UCRRA has the governance and leadership skills to manage a smooth transition.
As for favoritism at UCRRA, its attorney says it is “patently false” that employees could buy more compost than members of the public. He says all compost purchases were limited to one loader bucket or 2 tons because a 60 percent reduction in food waste brought in made less compost available for sale. Donaldson, who represents Kingston, says there have been few recent complaints.
Don Markle says it’s “nonsense” to say his dispute with Whittaker is personal; he says the issue is favoritism and access to compost. (Although Donaldson notes that Willie Whittaker’s company is called “Affordable Dump Trailer Rental” and Markle named his now-defunct business “Better than Affordable Dump Trailer & Rentals.”) Markle’s father, 52, also named Don, has worked at UCRRA for 28 years. He backed his son’s allegations and says he was harassed as a result and quit. Since his son went public, Markle agrees that compost is distributed more fairly.