Dominick Calsolaro

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Albany backs landfill growth

Council approves $11.72 million bonding for Rapp Road expansion

Published on 5/18/2010 by the Times Union written by JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer

ALBANY -- City lawmakers Monday night narrowly approved four borrowing measures crucial to the expansion of the Rapp Road landfill.

The votes ended an impassioned, two-month deadlock in which Mayor Jerry Jennings accused dissenters of acting recklessly with the city's fiscal future and suggested they would be at fault if the city needed to start charging for trash collection.

But opponents of the measure countered that the city has just as irresponsibly managed the landfill for three decades, forcing the need for the controversial expansion into the Pine Bush in the first place.

For years, the city has used landfill revenue to subsidize daily operations of city government.

The expansion is projected to extend its life at least another seven years while the city and surrounding cities and towns plan how to dispose of the region's trash in the future.

Councilman Lester Freeman said the city's lack of a back-up plan is why residents will likely have to pay for trash collection anyway once the landfill is full.

"I hope everyone has their calculator out tonight because you paid for it," Freeman said before voting "no'' for a third time.

All together, the four bonding ordinances total just over $11.72 million. Three of them passed by a single vote.

The 10th and deciding vote proved difficult to come by, with one ordinance failing twice since March amid concerns about the amount of debt the city is taking on and whether the city had adequately explored alternatives to the expansion.

It came from Councilman Anton Konev, who had twice before voted "no,'' but who said changed his position after the council compromised on a non-binding resolution to send to Jennings with the ordinances.

That resolution, among other things, calls for new and increased recycling as well as for the city to frankly acknowledge in its budgeting that the landfill as a revenue source -- said to be turning a $4 million to $5 million profit annually -- will vanish in seven years.

Even with the landfill revenue, Albany is projected to face a budget gap next year that could exceed $20 million.

More importantly, the resolution compromised on arguably the most controversial aspect of the expansion, the city's decision to bond $18 million for a state-mandated restoration of Pine Bush habitat.

In the permit authorizing the 15-acre expansion issued last June, the state Department of Environmental Conservation required the city to set aside $10 for every ton of trash dumped at the landfill to pay the bill.

Dissenters, led by Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, argued that borrowing to pay that expense saddles city taxpayers with the full cost of the restoration, even though they account for just a fraction of the trash dumped there.

Instead, they pushed for all or part of that fee to be added as a surcharge on top of the tipping fees paid by everyone who dumps there -- especially private, for-profit haulers who already enjoy a special discounted rate.

The resolution, which is non-binding on Jennings, calls on landfill officials to try to negotiate higher tipping fees for all the dump's customers.

But Calsolaro and Councilwoman Leah Golby said that doesn't go far enough.

Both were among the four who voted against borrowing $3.25 million for the restoration and instead urged the passage of an ordinance sponsored by Calsolaro that would require the city to impose a $5 surcharge on dumping.

"That ordinance is the real compromise," Golby said.

Jennings' administration, however, remains philosophically opposed to using any increase in the tipping fee to pay for the restoration, favoring instead to apply it to next year's projected deficit.

Councilwoman Jackie Jenkins-Cox, who voted for the borrowing the first time and against it the second time, was absent.

Councilman James Sano, chairman of the finance committee and a supporter, likened the need to borrow for the expansion to taking out a mortgage to buy a house.

Some expenses, he said, are simply too large to pay out of pocket.

"Nobody goes and buys a house and pays $250,000 cash," Sano said. "At least nobody I know."

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.