Dominick Calsolaro

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Albany delays landfill bonding

Published on 7/7/2009 by the Times Union written by JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer

ALBANY -- Citing unanswered questions about the details and length of the borrowing package, city lawmakers stalled a crucial bond vote Monday night that would have paved the way for the first phase of the $41 million Rapp Road landfill expansion.
But there may have been more to the delay than just due diligence.

Bond ordinances require 10 of the 15 Common Council members to vote 'yes,' and it's not clear whether the ordinances to fund the expansion into the Pine Bush would have carried enough support.

Only 14 council members were present Monday, leaving an even slimmer margin. Councilman Glen Casey was absent.

Lawmakers will now gather in a special meeting July 15 to consider the ordinances, which include $9 million for the expansion and $2.4 million for Pine Bush restoration.

The delay is designed to provide council members more time to seek answers to lingering questions that include why the city would borrow for 25-30 years to fund an expansion that will only add seven years of actual landfill capacity.

A byproduct, however, will be to push the city within 48 hours of having to rebid the project, further stalling construction and -- according to an outside attorney working on the project -- raising the possibility that construction won't be complete before space in the existing landfill expires.

Estimates for when that will happen have ranged from late this year to, most recently, February 2010.

"To me, this is a life and death issue as far as the financial security of this city," Councilman James Scalzo told fellow lawmakers, referring to the potential fiscal implications of a loss of landfill revenue combined with the sudden, added cost of having to ship the city's trash elsewhere.

"We have to move forward," Scalzo said, urging opponents of the bonding package to offer a concrete written alternative or recognize that "come November, we're in deep doo-doo."

Seeking to better manage city borrowing, the council earlier this year adopted a debt policy that, among other things, resolves not to bond for longer than "the expected useful life of the purpose" for the borrowing.

To the thinking of some council members, that means seven years, not 25 or 30.

Mayor Jerry Jennings' administration, however, has argued the landfill expansion's useful life is much longer than the time it can accept trash because it will continue to yield revenue-producing methane gas for decades.

The landfill liner, which is part of the expansion, must also last three decades, noted attorney Ruth Leistensnider, who is working with the city on the project.

Leistensnider made that case to council members last week while she also warned of the consequences of failing to move quickly on the borrowing, including running out of space in the existing landfill.

Council members Dominick Calsolaro and Corey Ellis have also condemned the city's plans to borrow to fund a multimillion project to restore the Pine Bush in return for the expansion instead of levying a per-ton fee on dumpers.

They say that amounts to forcing city taxpayers to carry the full burden of the environmental restoration, even though they account for less than 10 percent of the trash dumped at the landfill.

Ellis and Calsolaro were among four who voted against adopting a resolution Monday night that accepted the findings of the state environmental review of the expansion project. That measure passed 10-4.

But there's no guarantee all 10 who supported that resolution would have backed the bonding, including Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti who says he's concerned about the council violating its debt policy so soon after it was adopted.

"I don't think the votes were here tonight for that package," Conti said afterward.

Councilman James Sano, chairman of the Finance Committee, declined to speculate on whether the measures would have passed because, he said, concern about their failure was not the reason for the delay.

"The reason for the delay is that there are people that have valid questions that deserve answers," Sano said.