Southampton will ban plastic bags for leaf pickup

While Riverhead Town continues to debate the future of its seasonal leaf pickup programs, and with that the potential end of curbside removal of loose leaves, neighboring Southampton Town is making a move.

When its fall pickup program begins Nov. 22, the Southampton Town Highway Department will not accept leaves in plastic bags or any brush left at the curb. But it will continue to collect loose leaves left at the curb and leaves in biodegradable paper bags, said the highway superintendent there, Alex Gregor.

Mr. Gregor also said that in the spring, Southampton Town will pick up brush only — no leaves — although that part of the plan may be subject to change.

In addition, the town will conduct two pilot programs to try to determine if it would be cheaper to have leaves picked up by town employees or by hired private contractors. Those pilot programs will be done only in the Hampton Bays and North Sea areas, Mr. Gregor said. The town will ask companies to bid on several different options being considered for 2011, he said. These options include picking up loose leaves, pickup of biodegradable paper bags, as well as disposal in a town facility or a private facility, Mr. Gregor said.

Eliminating curbside pickup of loose leaves is something some residents of both Riverhead and Southampton have opposed. But highway superintendents say curbside pickup comes at a great cost and requires lots of their employees’ time.

“It’s really developed into the Wild West,” Mr. Gregor said of both the leaf and brush programs, noting that people frequently abuse the brush pickup. He said the manpower required for the program is using up time that could be spent fixing roads, cleaning drains and doing other jobs intended to make roads safe. He said last year, when it snowed frequently, the fall leaf pickup wasn’t completed until April 15, and the spring program began April 20.

Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson has made similar arguments, saying he believes phasing out loose leaf pickup could save Riverhead upwards of $250,000.

In both Riverhead and Southampton, Town Boards with a Republican majority appear prepared to leave the controversial decision up to highway superintendents who were elected with Democratic backing.

Southampton held two public forums on the issue earlier this year and issued a questionnaire answered by 194 people, most of whom wanted to keep curbside leaf pickup.

On the question, “Should the Town of Southampton abandon the leaf program completely?” 81 percent of the respondents answered “no.”

Mr. Gregor said senior citizens favor pickup of loose leaves because it’s easier than bagging them.

Asked if using biodegradable bags supplied by the town would be an incentive to switch to a system requiring all leaves to be bagged, 54 percent answered no.

Likewise, 57 percent opposed having the town hire a private contractor for leaf pickup. Southampton Town’s leaf and brush program cost about $1.5 million in 2009, according to Mr. Gregor. Of that amount, $521,975 was for fees that the town highway department had to pay to the town waste management department. Mr. Gregor said the “charge-back” has been in effect for two years, and is something he’d like to see the Town Board eliminate. He said the charge-back amount was increased when he took office, and amounts to basically taxpayers paying taxpayers.

“The biggest anchor around the neck of the Town of Southampton is the waste management division,” Mr. Gregor said in an interview. The charge-back, he said, “is an outlandish price based on no kind of fact.”

The waste management budget is paid into by all town residents, whereas the highway department budget is supported by residents of incorporated villages that have their own highway departments.

One issue with the biodegradable paper bags, which are used in Southold Town, is that they cost more than plastic bags and are currently sold in only a few stores. Mr. Gregor said that if Southampton wanted to buy the bags and supply them to residents, it would cost about $200,000.

Southampton Councilman Jim Malone suggested to Mr. Gregor at a work session last Thursday that the biodegradable bags be given priority and picked up first. But Lance Aldrich, a highway department foreman, said the department generally likes to make one pass through each neighborhood, and if it took the bags first and then came back later for the leaves, residents would just put more leaves out after the bags were picked up.

“Hopefully, we can meet halfway,” Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said of the leaf pickup options last Thursday. “We do know that the leaf program doesn’t work well in its current form.”

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