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Harper Woods

August 27, 2013

Vote to discontinue leaf service fails 4-3

By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer

HARPER WOODS — While funding and manpower issues were at the heart of a recommendation to discontinue curbside leaf pickup service, the majority of the City Council isn’t on board with the change.

City Council voted down the recommendation to discontinue the service by a 4-3 vote during its August 12 meeting.

“If we discontinue the service, we will not pick it up again,” council member Vivian Sawicki said. “It will not happen. I know it seems like such a minor thing, but it’s a quality-of-life issue.

“Reducing it, I can understand,” she said. “Cutting it out altogether I think would really be a detriment to our community.”

Mayor Pro Tem Cheryl Costantino agreed, also voting against the resolution.

“Curbside leaf pickup is one of the last things we have left that makes Harper Woods special,” she said. “I’m OK with cutting it back, but how can we be expected to vote on this when we don’t know how much it’s going to cost to contract it out?”

The council initially voted to table the issue during its July 3 meeting because the council wanted more information.

City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk asked that the council vote Aug. 12 so he could take the next steps, like giving residents notice of what the council decided.

“One way or another, I need a resolution on this and whether we’re going to discontinue or not,” he said.

Skotarczyk had recommended discontinuation. The city could save a potential of about $100,000 after paying for additional costs incurred to take the bagged leaves for composting.

The exact cost of taking the bags for composting by the city’s waste removal company is still being negotiated.

Skotarczyk was given a quote of $61,500 based on an additional 1,000 tons of compost. He went back and said the city needed a better price.

“Our refuse fund is already in trouble, is already behind,” he said of the need for a cheaper cost.

“There will be an additional charge,” Skotarczyk told the council. “Today, I don’t know what that charge will be for that pickup, but it will be somewhere under $61,500 annually.”

He said he knows that some concerned residents feel this will cause a hardship.

“We realize that this is not a popular decision,” Skotarczyk said. “Anyone hates to see a service discontinued.”

“I’d remind that when we had 18-20 people in our (Department of Pubilc Works), we used to shovel sidewalks, as well,” he said. “We no longer can do that. This is another avenue that I don’t believe that we can continue to do.”

He said that if they decided to add the cost of the service onto taxpayers’ refuse bills, it would cost households an additional $19-$20 on top of another recommended increase for a separate issue.

“The problem is that not everybody uses the curbside leaf pickup,” Skotarczyk said. “A lot of people already bag their leaves.“

Sawicki said she wouldn’t mind paying $20 to keep the service.

“It seems to me that with the size of the trees and our elderly population in the community, I know for a fact that I would be happy to pay $20 and continue to have my leaves be picked up,” she said.  “If I knew that there was one week and I would get those leaves out one week only and put them in the street, I think it would be a great benefit.”

While money is an issue, the bigger problem is lack of manpower. The Department of Public Works is down to four full-time employees.

Skotarczyk said that most employees are already doing extra duties, due to being short-staffed. They’ve made sacrifices, but he said the city is in a position that he’ll be negotiating more with the employee groups this year, due to the city’s financial situation. For instance, the city’s pension fund is in need of a major fix.

“Our DPW have not had a raise since 2006,” Skotarczyk said. “Our police and fire are at 2010 wages.

“We’re going to be asking sacrifices of our employees,” he said.

Costantino and Sawicki spoke of a reduced service using contractors with only one week of curbside leaf service. They said they wanted those numbers and information before a vote.

“There is no company that currently offers this service,” Skotarczyk said. “I have prepared an RFP (request for proposals) that would go out. We found some contractors that may have an interest in doing the service.”

Yet, he said he didn’t want to put out an RFP if they were going to vote to discontinue the service.

While some council members opposing the discontinuation wanted to look at a possible reduced service to one week, council member Charles Flanagan said he wanted to keep it just the same.

Flanagan said he also felt people might gather their leaves in black trash bags instead of leaf bags, which could raise the cost for hauling rubbish.

“I would suggest that we continue it as a service that is consistent with what we’re used to,” he said. 

“I still think $20 per year is about what you’re going to pay for a bunch of bags to do it yourself,” he said. “I don’t think we should minimize it (or) cut it back. I think we should continue it.

“Leaves fall for several weeks and blow with the wind and the rain,” he said. 

Flanagan also said if it takes hiring a few temporary staff for a couple of days to get the job done, then that’s what they should do.

Council member Valerie Kindle also was passionate about providing some type of curbside leaf pickup program. She voted against taking the issue off the table to discuss it.

She said she’s spoken to residents who are very concerned.

“I think it’s totally unfair that we continue to take away from our community and ask them to pay more taxes,” she said.

Mayor Ken Poynter voted in favor of the discontinuation, saying that “the bottom line is that we don’t have the money.”

He said he would be in favor of discontinuing the service if they agreed to take a look at it for next year.

“While they want the service retained, it’s difficult for me to vote to have it when we don’t have enough personnel, and we don’t have the money,” Poynter said. “I don’t know how I can justify continuing it.”

Like Poynter, council member Daniel Palmer said he understood the impact it would have on people, but said he would support the administration’s recommendation.

“We’ve also had to have the 9.5 mills assessed, and now we have an additional refuse tax,” Palmer said. “I think, while $20 doesn’t seem like a lot of money, as the city manager indicates, it’s not just the money. The DPW is four individuals right now.

“This is a hard one,” he added. “This is one of the things that people in Harper Woods do value.”

Council member Hugh Marshall was the third council member to vote to approve the resolution ending the service.

“Another issue is that the city manager has tried to find possible vendors to do this and so far there are none,” he said “So the longer that we delay this, looking for, these phantom vendors that may not even exist, the longer we keep the city open to these liabilities of extra costs that we cannot afford. I think we need to make a decision tonight.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer April Lehmbeck at alehmbeck@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1043.