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Trash Talks Sour at Town Hall

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To the average Southampton Town resident, trash is a topic given little thought. Many locals choose to bag their household waste and leave it on the corner of their properties for a private waste hauling company to pick up and cart away. Others participate in the town’s “green bag” system and bring their trash to one of the town’s four dumps, or waste stations. Once those trash bags travel down the chute or are thrown into the back of a truck, the Southampton Town resident’s role in disposing of their household waste is done.

For members of the town board, however, how best to manage the town’s waste is a subject of lively debate. Since last year, the board has explored the idea of privatizing waste management operations, or in other words hiring a private company to run the town’s trash disposal service. Privatization could be the key to lowering costs associated with the town program and ease its deficit. However, some members of the board are weary of the plan and believe privatization might fail to accomplish this goal.

In December of 2008, the town hired Cashin Associates, a business consulting firm, to conduct a comprehensive study on current operations of the town’s waste management system and the viability of hiring a private company to take over the reigns of this town service.

“Historically, the town has run its [waste management] operations as a traditional governmental service rather than as a business that must balance its costs and revenues. This approach, in conjunction with providing a high level of service for a relatively limited number of users, has contributed to operational inefficiencies and a general imbalance of income and expenditures within the Department,” wrote the consulting firm in its opening comments. At a work session held Friday, July 10, members of the board estimated the department’s deficit at around $2.8 million, but comptroller Tamara Wright added that this figure was based on unaudited financials. Kabot added that the town is waiting for the year end 2008 numbers, but said “waste management is in deficit condition.”

Based on Cashin’s analysis, around 11 to 14 percent of the town population use the town’s waste stations, however, councilman Chris Nuzzi argued these figures were debatable. Although the number of participating locals may be small, the costs savings are substantial for residents who take advantage of the program. Cashin estimated the average household paid $215 annually for disposal of their household trash at the town waste site. The average annual price for a private trash hauling company was estimated at $521. However, larger families who live farther from waste stations see only 17 percent savings compared to private hauling services.

In recent years, the town has experienced success with its green bag and bulk waste program. Cashin estimated this leg of the waste management program garners an annual revenue of around $819,000, while the expenditure for the green bag and bulk waste service is approximately $790,000. In addition to positive revenues for these particular services, the waste management department has also worked to cut down on expenses. Closing the Westhampton and Sag Harbor stations one day per week has helped lessen costs.

However, Cashin claims the amount of waste disposed at a town facility steadily decreased from 2004 through 2008. They pointed out that the department has almost 25 employees and over the next eight years will need to pay around $4,000,000 for new equipment and vehicles.

Based on their findings, Cashin advised the town to issue request for proposals, or RFPs, “to gauge vendor interest in taking over transfer station operations, handling transport and disposal of most of its solid waste stream.”

Cashin theorized the town could potentially save money by leasing or selling their equipment. The report added that based on prevailing New York State wages, a private contractor could potentially pay around 10 percent less than the town for labor and staffing.

“In recent years, Southampton had experienced a marked improvement in its overall solid waste management operations, including and especially control of labor costs, better tracking of expenses and interdepartmental charges, and phased upgrades to the North Sea Transfer station …,” the report determined. “[T]his study found that the town-run transport and private disposal of green bag and bulk waste currently costs the town approximately $141 [per ton]. This number is substantially higher than what most other Long Island municipalities pay for similar service. Therefore the major recommendation of this Privatization Study is the town of Southampton issue a request for proposals RFP.”

Both Nuzzi and town councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst were reluctant to entertain bids from private companies before the town receives fully completed and solid figures on the waste management’s financial status.

“I still have a lot of analysis to do,” contended comptroller Wright.

Throne-Holst held firm on waiting for the financials before deciding to privatize the waste management program.

“We are having this discussion without the numbers,” argued Throne-Holst, and it appeared the board was at an impasse again on the viability of privatization.