On elephants and garbage

Mario Catalano, DDS, the backstop for our Me and Mario biweekly call-in show on WGHQ, and I gave a good deal of consideration to inviting leaders from the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency as our guests last Friday.

We were looking to provide listeners with a more balanced examination of the ongoing conflicts between the RRA and comptroller March Gallagher with legislature chairman Dave Donaldson playing referee. But Gallagher declined. It’s before the courts, she told us; let’s talk after a decision.  Donaldson gave us what’s known in the trade as a soft no. He didn’t respond.

Having just one of them on our show would be unfair to the others, we thought, but then a bird in hand might be better than two in the bush. Like Jack Kennedy liked to say, life isn’t always fair.

So, we invited a receptive RRA director Tim DeGraff. He brought along his recycling coordinator.  Angelina Peone (“call me Angie”) proved to be an enthusiastic advocate for a topic which other than the ongoing stink over composting wasn’t high on our agenda.

Quite frankly, as public commentators we had begun to view the acerbic back-and-forth between Gallagher and DeGraff, with Donaldson filling in for yet-to-be-heard-from legislator Manna Jo Green, chairwoman of the legislature committee that has jurisdiction over the RRA, as something of a diversion. The elephant in the living room, which they’re all ignoring, is what the hell is the RRA doing about the onrushing tsunami to secure some place -any place – to dump Ulster’s garbage in what is rapidly becoming the near future?

DeGraff was forthcoming, responsive and informative, if not wary of the two sharks across the table at GHQ studios on Lucas Avenue in uptown Kingston, but ultimately something of a disappointment. I should quickly add that garbage disposal is an enormously complex operation, much of it controlled by forces outside the RRA’s kin. Consumers think that once their trash is dropped in the recycling bin, it’s gone. It’s just the beginning.

DeGraff, a 17-year veteran of RRA service – a CPA, he was the agency’s chief financial officer until promoted to executive director when Tim Rose resigned last year. He knows intimately all the problems, all the history. He follows his profession on every level, local, county, state, national, even international. The Chinese in setting up their own recycling operations, rather than buying material from abroad, changed everything, for instance.

The director can rattle off would-be “solutions” by the number, all of which have been revisited over the years in one garbage “crisis” after another.

Let’s revisit a few, as DeGraff did.

The regional approach: Four years ago, the RRA reached out to neighboring Sullivan and Greene counties in an effort to site a new regional landfill. Launched with the best of intentions, talks collapsed after a dozen headlines. Nobody wanted somebody else’s garbage trucked to their backyard.

A new landfill in Ulster: Former RRA board member Charlie Landi of Kingston identified over 200 large parcels in the county where a landfill might be located. Sorry, Charlie. DeGraff and his crew widdled it down to two 300-acre sites in southern Ulster. Neither has a prayer. See: “I don’t believe the state will ever approve a new landfill in New York,” McGrath opined.

Hooking up to Dutchess County’s burn plant: Again, wishful thinking. The obsolete D.C. plant can barely handle Duchess garbage and will require millions for upgrades. Again, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) rules.  

At the last, a glimmer of hope, keeping in mind that hope is not a plan. While DeGraff believes the state will “never” approve a new landfill – which he says could take at least a decade to site – he holds out some hope that it might, just might, OK an expansion of the Seneca Lakes landfill where Ulster currently trucks its garbage.

And that would seem to be where we’re at: pretty much fresh out of options but with a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile garbage trucks roll every day.

Footnotes: We covered a lot of ground in about 50 minutes on-air, but that’s what we do. M&M is into open, honest exchanges of ideas, grist for listeners to chew on and maybe discuss. Not much of that going on these days.

Remember when actor Hugh Grant got busted for consorting with a hooker on a street in Hollywood? For me, the most memorable line from that sordid incident was Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s “What were you thinking?” to a morbidly embarrassed Grant on the couch.

We didn’t phrase our question on insider dealing to DeGraff quite like that, but we should have.

Revisiting an unresolved controversy, the RRA recently sold two-thirds of its compost to an employee who then marketed it at a nice profit to area farmers and businesses. “What were you thinking?” asked a clearly perplexed Catalano.

The answer was pretty much the same as Grant.  

With the compost out of the barn, the RRA is working on some post-facto policy, said the director.

Memo to the boss: Just say no.

I detected a bit of impishness in DeGraff, when he volunteered the possibility of siting a landfill at Winston Farm just west of Saugerties village. Having seen it all, DeGraff knows Saugerties would go ballistic at even the hint of a landfill in their town. Remember “Dump Here? Never?” Never is a long time.

DeGraff commands a handsome salary as boss of the RRA, a few thousand more than the county executive with about a twentieth of the workforce. In fact, he holds down two senior positions, finance officer and director. The agency no doubt saved some money with that approach, though some might question that much authority in one person.

As agency lawyers have repeatedly argued in refusing to respond to Gallagher’s subpoena for fiscal records surrounding the composting operation, the RRA is not your typical county department. Classified by law as an independent state authority, it’s five-member board of directors is appointed by the legislature with the approval of the county executive. The chairman of the legislature nominates three members, majority and minority leaders, one each. It is therefore very much a creature of the legislature, so pray tell, where stands the legislature on all this? Ans: It’s an election year.

And finally – Condolences to the family of former Lloyd supervisor and two-term county legislator Paul Hansut. Hansut, 57, died earlier this month from pancreatic cancer.

Hansut, a retired Poughkeepsie police detective, was a community activist long before seeking elective office. He served four years in the legislature, the last two as Republican minority leader. For Hansut, a plain-spoken, straightforward type, legislative politics wasn’t his bag. He was much more comfortable on the town level, first as a councilman and then for several terms as town supervisor.

Well-liked and better, well-respected, his sudden passing in the prime of life is a great loss to the community he served so well for many years.