Plans to bag the Town of East Hampton’s leaf pick-up program were pilloried and championed at a public hearing last Thursday night, with residents arguing over the environmental benefits or financial savings found in scrapping the service, and others wondering if the less fortunate and elderly will be able to bear the burden of being responsible for their own leaf clean-up.
Currently, the leaf pick-up service is available to residents who rake their leaves into piles on the edge of roadways, the town highway department collecting and disposing of the autumnal debris.
Town board officials have maintained that ending the service in East Hampton, one of only two towns on the East End including Southampton Town that still provide leaf pick-up, could save upwards of $500,000 in salaries and maintenance costs at a time where the town is facing a $30 million deficit.
Highway superintendent Scott King says the savings would come in closer to $180,000, and on Tuesday night clarified the difference between the two figures.
“I want to commend you on your tenacity to save a dime,” he said, adding that while he does not support the elimination of the leaf pick-up program, he does support reverting to a bagged leaf pick-up program.
King said his figure of $180,000 assumes the town will maintain full-time highway department employees for other roadway projects in the town in lieu of the months devoted to leaf pick-up.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson replied that in his analysis, he is including the cost of labor.
Wilkinson, who has supported ending the program, opened the meeting with a video by Cile Downes of the Accabonac Protection Committee, which advocated the benefits of mulching fallen leaves into lawns as a method of organic lawn care. The video also suggested creating homemade compost sheds for decomposing leaves.
Town environmental analyst Brian Frank and town natural resources director Larry Penny supported those kinds of measures at the public hearing, with Frank noting not removing leaves from a property can be beneficial to the environment.
“I do think one of the best approaches is to mow leaves into the law,” he said, adding the practice is best done when leaves are dry and up to three quarters an inch thick on the ground.
“My wife and I have the same kind of struggle a lot of people here are having with the board and each other,” said Penny, who used to teach composting at Southampton College. “She doesn’t like leaves and I won’t let a leaf leave our property. So we fight about that, but so far I have been successful.”
Penny noted that leaves do naturally decompose and at a rapid rate.
“There is a lot we can do,” he said. “We have just started scratching the surface here. I think from my point of view, from the natural resources department point of view, we have to conserve and we should try and keep as many leaves on the property as possible, but we can always bag them and bring them to the landfill.”
Other residents questioned the environmental benefit in removing the program, others questioning the health risks that could be involved.
Sag Harbor resident Jen Brown said she and her family have been afflicted by tick-borne illnesses, one almost claiming the life of her son.
Brown, who was accompanied by Eva Haughie, president of the Empire State Lyme Disease Association, feared that with the increase of leaf debris would come an increase in animals associated with Lyme disease.
“It can be that serious and I don’t want to see anyone here affected because leaf debris has not been properly taken care of,” said Haughie.
Brown said that at the very least, should the town board decide to end the leaf pick-up program, it should create a public awareness campaign on tick-borne illnesses.
Daniel Cohen, of Settlers Landing, said the amount of leaves that fall on his property are more that any one individual would be able to cope with through mulching and compost. Acknowledging the town has had a financial mountain to climb, Cohen questioned whether a proposed 17 to 20 percent tax decrease wouldn’t be wiped out for many residents forced to hire landscapers to take care of their fallen leaves.
Cohen added that the environmental savings, he believes, will be wiped out in the multiple car trips to the town recycling center needed to dispose of bagged leaf debris, and questioned whether a plan to have high school student volunteers and those fulfilling community service requirements aid seniors in their lawn care would be successful.
Wainscott resident Arthur French added that using both King’s figures and the town board’s estimates, bagging the program would result in a savings of $18 to $46 a household.
“This is a non-taxable, hidden stealth tax you will be putting on us,” he charged.
French also questioned some board member’s belief that the program is “a luxury.”
“This is a necessity,” he said, agreeing with Cohen that expecting court-ordered or high school volunteers to help the elderly and infirm in this kind of task was an unreasonable expectation.
“Some of these kids, you can’t get to pick up their own socks,” he said, adding he would happily pay the $18 to $46 to the town to continue the program.
“Send me a bill,” said French.
Beverly Bond disagreed, saying she believes residents will be better off with less government in their lives and that the town board should not ignore the kind of savings it could see in ending the program.
“In my view, it is not the government’s job to remove my leaves,” Bond said, adding she believed creating community service opportunities would create a greater sense of community in East Hampton.
“It is time to go back to helping each other and not depend on government to do the tasks residents as a community should be doing for each other,” she said.
Amagansett resident Kent Miller said while he and his wife have enjoyed the leaf pick-up program, they understand it would free up money for other expenses within the town highway department, but urged the board to use this year as a test and not sell the equipment until they can be assured ending the program was the right thing to do.
Chris Russo, who was the town’s highway superintendent for 18 years, congratulated the board on the initiative, noting that when he took office in 1990, the town had leaf pick-up in the spring and the fall, taking four full months of the highway department’s time, which could have been better spent on other projects.
“I think the board, you have made a wise decision,” he continued. “I am sure you will take a lot of flack for it. The big savings is not in $180,000, but that the whole highway department will be available for two more months of productive road maintenance.”