Council members slam landfill borrowing
Published on 03/28/2012 by the Times Union written by JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer
ALBANY — Mayor Jerry Jennings appears to be on yet another collision course with city lawmakers over the growing debt tied to the city's Rapp Road landfill.
Despite dire warnings from a city attorney that a failure to back $9.3 million in new bonds for the facility could effectively shut city government down, the Common Council's Finance Committee narrowly voted Wednesday night to recommend that their colleagues not support it on Monday.
"It's time that we get honest about that this thing is an ATM machine and we're just racking up debt for it," said 15th Ward Councilman Frank Commisso Jr., one of the three committee members who voted against supporting the measures.
The city relies on about $11 million in landfill revenue annually to pay its bills, but some council members have grown increasingly critical of Jennings' handling of the facility — specifically what they believe is an over-reliance on landfill cash and the lack of plan to pay down millions of dollars in outstanding debt on it once it closes.
Commisso, who acknowledged that he views the landfill as part of the city's future, argued that the bonding ordinances are the last bit of leverage the council has to force the Jennings administration to show them a plan to pay it off.
"Once this goes," he said, "they're not talking to us. This is their last cell."
Some of the rancor dates to the city's controversial decision, approved by the state in 2009, to expand the landfill one last time — a move opposed by environmental groups and that came with a state-mandated $18 million restoration of the surrounding Pine Bush.
One of the pending ordinances would allow the city to borrow $7 million to build the landfill's final cell, which — at current estimates — would buy Albany until about 2021 to find another way to dispose of its trash.
The second, more time-sensitive ordinance is for $2.35 million to fund that Pine Bush restoration.
The city needs to show the state Department of Environmental Conservation that it has at least some of that money in an account by April 10 or risk being found in violation of the expansion's permit, which Assistant Corporation Counsel Brad Burns said could ultimately result in daily fines as high as $25,000.
Landfill Director Joseph Giebelhaus, meanwhile, told lawmakers he needs the construction bond approved as soon as possible to ensure that the new cell is completed before the current one runs out of space at the end of next year, a gap that would force the city to scramble to find someplace else to send its trash while at the same time losing the landfill cash it lives on.
"If you don't pass (them)," said Assistant Corporation Counsel Patrick Jordan, "the city basically shuts down."
Councilman Michael O'Brien, who is not a member of the committee but is heavily involved in landfill issues, urged his colleagues to support the borrowing lest the city face a fiscal crisis much sooner than the landfill's closure a decade from now.
"I don't think crashing into a wall and bringing the city down with it is the appropriate gesture," O'Brien said. "We'd be in financial catastrophe."
Nonetheless, councilmen Dominick Calsolaro — a longtime landfill opponent — and Lester Freeman joined with Commisso in voting 'no.'
Only committee Chairman James Sano and Council Majority Leader Daniel Herring supporting the borrowing.
Bonding ordinances need a super-majority of 10 votes to pass, and it's not clear whether those votes will be there Monday night.
"We'll move it. Let it fail," Sano challenged his colleagues. "And then let's hear all the alternative plans."
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