Leaf Pickup Hearing Rakes In Opinions

(October 14, 2010) At a hearing last Thursday on a proposal to eliminate roadside leaf pickup by the East Hampton Town Highway Department this fall, a majority of speakers were against dropping the service, which many said was an essential, and expected, service for their tax dollars. Other comments focused on the ecological benefits of leaf composting as well as its feasibility.

Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson began the hearing by showing a video by Cile Downs of the Accabonac Protection Committee called “What About the Leaves?” which a speaker later in the hearing called “propaganda.” It stressed the ecological importance of retaining and composting leaves and demonstrated how that could be done on one’s property using a simple wire bin in which leaves could be piled. The video was the committee’s submission to the hearing. “I had no part in the dog-and-pony video,” Mr. Wilkinson said later in the evening. “That came from the A.P.C.”

Robert Wick told the board its proposal to eliminate leaf pickup is a “wise decision on many levels,” fiscally as well as environmentally. Mr. Wick said nutrients from decomposing leaves are essential for the health of the soil supporting woods and lawns, and cited studies from several universities saying that there is no maximum amount of leaves that can be mulched into a lawn.

A number of speakers supported the idea of composting, or mulching leaves and allowing them to remain on the lawn or other areas of a property, but said that the sheer volume of leaves on their properties in the fall would make it impossible to do so with all of the leaves.

“I would have to dig my way into my front door, and not only when it snows,” Dan Cohen, president of the Settlers Landing Property Owners Association, said.

Mr. Cohen said he had measured the piles he raked up in past years and that he had two 4-by-4-by-75-foot piles, and two of similar dimensions but 30 feet long. Those leaves would never fit into the small composting box shown in the video, he said.

The amount of leaves on wooded properties such as his, he said, is “way beyond the capacity of any individual property owner to cope with.” The members of his association, along with the Landfall Property Owners Association and three other residents’ groups, representing a total of 1,195 residents, had sent a letter to the board protesting its proposals, Mr. Cohen said.

Others discussed the hazards of allowing piles of drying leaves to remain near houses, such as a potential for fire and the creation of an environment that harbors ticks.

Eva Haughie of Manorville, the president of the Empire State Lyme Disease Association, cited a 97-page report issued by the county tick management task force, and other studies, which recommend removing leaf litter, brush, and leaves to reduce tick populations. “One of the things that leaf piles do is they offer a hiding place for ticks,” she said.

“The only way we’re going to atone for our past fiscal sins is by communal sacrifice,” Kent Miller said. With “finite monetary resources” in lean times, he said, suspending leaf pickup may be necessary, but he asked the board not to sell off the necessary trucks and equipment yet, but to use this as a test year.

Mr. Cohen and others spoke of the real economic impact of cutting the leaf pickup budget, given that any reduction in taxes it yields could be easily outweighed by the cost of hiring workers to help deal with the leaves.

While cutting the town budget is laudable, he said, “for hundreds, perhaps thousands, the tax money that stays in their pocket will flow out again, and more, to contractors and in trips to the recycling center.”

“The public method also spreads the cost efficiently,” Mr. Cohen said. Two estimates of how much savings there could be from eliminating the leaf program have been discussed, and were touched on by Scott King, the highway superintendent, at the hearing. Mr. King has tallied the salaries of part-time workers hired for the leaf season, along with fuel and maintenance for the vacuum trucks that pick up the leaves, and come up with a $180,000 leaf program cost exclusive of normal department costs.

In their estimate of a $550,000 cost, and, therefore, savings under their proposal to stop picking up leaves, Councilwoman Theresa Quigley and Supervisor Bill Wilkinson include the costs of salaries and benefits for the full-time town workers who would also be picking up leaves, although if the program is cut they would remain on the payroll, assigned to other tasks.

According to Arthur French, under the town board members’ tally, dropping the program would save $46 per property tax bill. Mr. King’s numbers would mean a savings of $18 per household, Mr. French said.

“Send me a bill,” he told the board. “I’ll be glad to give you a check for $46 to come and pick up my leaves.”

“The money saved can be put to better town use,” Beverly Bond said. “I believe we are better off with less government in our lives.” She said efforts to provide help to others with their leaves would provide an “ideal opportunity for us to become a community again.”

“As far as the money, I don’t think that leaves are really the key issue here,” said J.J. Kremm, who works for the town Sanitation Department. “I think senior citizens being fed, I think buses taking people to dialysis, I think town workers being able to afford to live here — we’ve got to pick and choose our battles,” he said. (Next year’s proposed budget reflects numerous budget cuts in human services.)

Though officials have suggested that the town could create a network of helpers comprising students or people assigned to community service by the court to provide assistance to senior citizens or the disabled, Mr. Cohen and other speakers expressed skepticism about how that would work, and noted that for many residents who might not qualify for help — the able-bodied but middle-aged or aging — clearing and hauling away leaves would be an untenable burden.

Mr. French raised the question of liability should a worker sent by the town get hurt on a private property.

Just getting the leaves piled up along the street, Dorothy Koda said, took five hours a day over two full weekends, raking and leaf blowing. “I have to tell you, I’m not a young chicken, and it was not easy for me to do. I did it out of necessity,” she said. “I would find it near to impossible,” to do more than that, she said. “Keep this one service, because it is a necessity to most of the people in this town,” she said.

Mr. French agreed. “This is not a luxury,” he told the board.

A couple of speakers acknowledged that the bulk of property taxes go to school districts, and noted that, with no children in the schools, they reaped no benefit from that. “I would like to see some of my taxes go into something that’s a little more of a benefit to me,” Susan Friend, a resident of Barnes Landing, said. She also suggested the town institute a fee — “Say, $100 an acre” — to raise money for the leaf pickup. “A lot of people I’ve spoken with would have absolutely no problem in paying that,” she said.

“I consider this a part of property taxes,” Bill O’Brien, also of Barnes Landing, said. “The one service I expect from the town is leaf pickup.”

Mr. O’Brien was among a number who said they support and use ecological gardening techniques, including mulching leaves to provide nutrients for soil and lawns. But, he said, “I honestly don’t think it’s possible to mulch the amount of leaves in my wooded area into my lawn.”

The DVD played at the beginning of the hearing, “should be entered into the East Hampton film festival, in the propaganda category,” he said. “ ‘Here’s a little square, put your leaves in there.’ On my property, I’d have to have 30 of those, or 40 of them.”

“I do compost,” Joanne Goldberg of Settlers Landing said. And, she said, she mulches leaves on the lawn. Nonetheless, she said, “Last year leaves from my property filled up one and a half trucks sent by the Town of East Hampton. There are more leaves than lawn.”

And, she said, “every one of my neighbors is in the same situation.” Ms. Koda, and several others, asked the board who would clean up the leaves that pile up on town easements along streets, or in the streets themselves. Piles of wet leaves on the streets, they said, could cause accidents.

“What are we talking about?” Bill Horn asked. “We’re talking about a modest amount of money for a service that means a lot to a lot of people — that relates to our health, that relates to safety. And we’re going to do away with it for $46 a household?”

“People will remember who let the service lapse, and they will remember every time they pick up a rake, or fill a bag,” David Feder said. Supervisor Wilkinson’s brother, Jack Wilkinson of Montauk, also criticized the plan.

Brian Frank, a town planner, said that the Planning Department supports leaving fallen leaves alone, regardless of the board’s final decision.

Clutching a plastic bag containing several leaves, Larry Penny, the town’s natural resources director, said that leaves that fall in the forest “decompose pretty quickly,” and provide important ecological benefits.

Another supporter of ending the leaf program was Chris Russo, who was town Highway Superintendent for 18 years, before Mr. King. Freeing workers from the task of picking up leaves will allow them to complete other tasks, he said. “The big savings is that the entire Highway Department will be available for two more months of productive road work,” and possibly keep staff levels down, Mr. Russo said.

Ellen Dooley said the board should consider the negative environmental impact of “thousands of trips to the dump.” Like other speakers, she said that people who don’t have pickups would have to make multiple trips to the dump with trunks full of leaves in order to clean up their properties.

She said it is “impractical both physically and economically” for residents to bag and haul the leaves. According to the 2000 census, Ms. Dooley said, 20 percent of East Hampton’s population is elderly. Twenty percent of those under 65 are disabled, as are 30 percent of the population over 65. Twelve percent live at or below the poverty level, and 4 percent of the people here do not own a car.

So far, the board has not enacted the town code change that would allow the leaf pickup to be suspended. A tentative budget for 2011 prepared by Supervisor Wilkinson for town board review does not contain money for the program to occur next year, either, although no hearing on that code change has been scheduled.