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Holding Out

As the Albany Common Council prepares for its third vote on the bonding ordinances that will fund the next phase of expansion of the Rapp Road landfill, it appears that the small bloc of progressives and council freshmen who have voted twice against the borrowing bills has possibly been broken. To secure support for the ordinances, members of the council leadership and the Jennings administration have been working behind the scenes, warning the council that if they don’t pass the bonding ordinances immediately, Albany could face bankruptcy, a devalued bond rating and even the dreaded control board.

While these are heady, legitimate, concerns for the council to consider, what is needed now is not a rush to compromise. By holding out on authorizing the bonding, this bloc of six legislators won surprising victories against the bullish administration, cracking open the opaque management of the landfill, and directing the city’s conversation to the long-term vision for waste management once the landfill is finally closed. When the ordinances come back up for vote on Monday, these members must continue their opposition. The reasons for this are simple.

First, the holdouts have yet to receive from City Hall the information that they have been demanding for months. As freshman Councilwoman Leah Golby has been telling Metroland since she lodged her first “no” vote, she has too many troubling questions about the landfill to support the bonding. These questions, shared by many of her colleagues, include the landfill’s finances and operations, its environmental impact, its estimated lifespan, and so on. As late as this Tuesday, Golby e-mailed a list of 20 yet-unanswered questions to council leadership.

Remember, it’s not the holdouts on the council who have brought the city to this perilous fiscal situation—that blame lies squarely with the administration. For years, the administration has operated the landfill in a combatively territorial manner, directing the landfill’s revenue into the general fund, where it has been used to plug holes in the budget that ought to have been addressed through other means. Through expansion after expansion, the Jennings administration has been devastating the globally rare Pine Bush ecosystem for a specious profit.

Which leads us to the most critical point for holding out on the bonding votes. As ordered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the city must pony up roughly $18 million for the Pine Bush restoration project. As it currently stands, the full weight of that cost will be placed, through borrowing, onto the heads of Albany taxpayers. However, the city has the option to mitigate this cost by leveling the DEC-ordered $10 surcharge on every ton brought into the landfill by its largest customers, haulers Allied Waste and County Waste.

The council’s General Services Committee is considering, as a compromise, a nonbinding resolution that includes language urging the administration to seek an increase in tipping fees paid by the commercial haulers. The administration continues to argue, however, that the negotiating tipping fees is a delicate process, and that any increase could drive the haulers away.

As Councilman Mike O’Brien points out, that is a suspicious claim. Where would they go? Colonie runs at near capacity, and the nearest landfills are hours away on the interstate. Considering the cost of transportation and fuel, it is hard to believe that a $5 or $10 increase would tip the scales for the haulers.

Only four years ago it came to light that the administration had cut a deal with Allied Waste to drop the company’s tipping fee from $46 a ton to $38. The administration, according to a Times Union article, defended the move by claiming that Allied had threatened to discontinue its dealings with the city and instead haul its trash elsewhere if the city wouldn’t meet its price demands. Today, the city charges Allied $47 a ton and the company still dumps 300 tons a day. The concern that they will go elsewhere seems to have been overplayed.

And now, the Times Union is reporting that County Waste is open to renegotiating a higher tipping fee, despite the dramatic claims made by the administration that $47 was the most they could possibly get. This, too, casts doubt on the validity of information coming out of the Jennings administration.

“Our taxpayers deserve more than what we are giving them,” said freshman Councilwoman Jackie Jenkins-Cox. “It is time to give them a break. If they choose to go somewhere else, let them go somewhere else. At this point, we need to make a stand for the city of Albany.”

We ask the council holdouts to stand their ground until they have won, not a tepid compromise, but an outright victory. By not relenting, they will have the negotiating power to ensure that the administration acts appropriately on behalf of the city’s taxpayers.

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