Last night's turn out for a public hearing on trash collection was the largest attendance for a city council meeting in recent memory.
According to fire code, only 246 people are permitted into council chambers at any one time, and last night Fire Chief Jim Maxwell and a Batavia PD officer were monitoring the doorway to prevent more people from entering until some people left.
The city council heard a variety of opinions about a proposed change in the Batavia Municipal Code governing how trash is collected in the city.
In all, 28 people took to the podium to address the council, and most of the speakers supported Genesee ARC, the local agency that has provided garbage and recycling collection services to city residents for 28 years.
"If it ain't broke, why fix it?" was a common refrain.
There were also speakers who support the proposed change to the municipal code and a couple of speakers who neither supported the proposed change nor necessarily back Genesee ARC keeping the garbage collection contract. They favor the city getting out of garbage collection altogether and letting property owners pick their own haulers.
In the end, no vote was taken -- the council vote is scheduled for Feb. 25 -- but there was a proposal from Councilwoman Patti Pacino that city staff schedule an informational meeting before the vote where residents can get their questions answered.
City Manager Jason Molino said speakers during the evening made at least 25 statements that were factually incorrect or need clarification and that such an informational meeting might be a good idea.
Unlike a public hearing, city staff would be able to answer questions and clarify information for both the public and council members at such a meeting.
No date was set, or even a confirmation that such a meeting would take place.
The public hearing began with a warning from City Attorney George Van Nest that speakers could not -- under state law, he said -- lobby the council on behalf or against any company that bid on the trash contract.
Van Nest said from the time the bids were requested until the time the bid is awarded, if it is, is considered a "restricted period" and anything related to any bidders could not be discussed.
The sole topic of consideration before the council was the proposed change to the solid waste law and not which company might be awarded the bid if the law is changed.
"State finance law prohibits those comments," Van Nest said. "State procurement procedures require that we follow the law. Please don't comment or lobby on behalf of any particular vendor."
Many speakers strayed from a strict interpretation of Van Nest's instructions. A few were told by Van Nest to confine their comments to the proposed new law and refrain from mentioning a particular vendor.
Some speakers had fun with the restrictions, making statements like "the vendor we all know."
The majority of the 246 people in the room were Genesee ARC supporters. They carried signs that read "No Totes" and "Keep ARC" and early on loudly applauded speakers who opposed the tote system in any manner.
The applause brought repeated warnings from Council President Tim Buckley to keep the disruption to a minimum so the meeting could move along swiftly.
People only stopped clapping following speakers after Buckley stood up and threatened to have the room cleared if the applause persisted.
The first speaker, Blake Elliott, didn't get much applause. He was one of three speakers completely supportive of the proposed change in the law.
"I still believe one source is the best way to go," Elliott said. "I don't believe it should be part of the taxpayers' bill. We need a system that is fair, equitable, variable and includes positive things for recycling and doesn't require trash and recycling blowing down the street."
Maidul Kahn also spoke in favor of the new law. He even praised Molino.
"All we hear now is tax and spend, over and over, year after year, tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spend," Kahn said. "Finally, I found somebody from the city, our city manager here, who has a proposal to cut taxes. It's unheard of, really. I really commend you Mr. Molino for coming up with this program. We pay enough taxes and we can use some tax relief."
Former Councilman Bill Cox also praised the anticipated tax savings and said the council was moving in the right direction to get trash collection off the tax rolls.
Cox said council members were elected to "do whatever is in your power to lower taxes."
Several speakers accused city management of really playing some sort of shell game with the suggestion that taxes will go down with the proposal.
Thomas Houseknecht, who owns commercial property in the city, said he will personally benefit from the proposed change. Still, he considers a user-fee to be a regressive tax -- costing poorer property owners more money and giving only rich property owners an actual tax break.
"If you vote in favor of this resolution and subsequently accept the bid from Allied Republic as the lowest bid, you are doing so at the expense of the most vulnerable part of our population, both ARC employees and taxpayers," Houseknecht said.
Jennifer Elmore said her home is assessed at $46,000. The new law would more than double what she pays for garbage collection now.
If the change in the local law fails, Molino has said property taxes could go up to more than $11 per thousand of assessed value.
Dave O'Geen said he calculated that the cost savings amounts to 11 cents a day and the cost savings isn't worth what would be lost.
"I would be ashamed to be part of a community that would even consider something like this," O'Geen said. "What are you going to tell your family, your children, your grandchildren, when they ask you if you voted to lay off a bunch of disabled individuals to save 11 cents a day?"
More than one speaker said they could afford the tax increase and would gladly pay it to protect Genesee ARC.
"I personally can afford another 11 cents a day and I really want to keep the people collecting my trash," Janet Saile said.
Charles Green, a 33-year resident of Batavia, questioned why a contract would be awarded to an out-of-town company that he doesn't believe the city knows enough about.
"I’ve seen a lot of changes in the city, but I got to tell you, in all honesty, the one thing I never thought that I would see was that I had to, mandated by law, buy a service from a company that I have no idea who they are," Green said. "I suspect most of the people behind me have never heard of them and quite frankly I’m not to sure the people in front of me have heard of them."
Speakers such as Dave Meyer, Jim Rosenbeck and John Roach questioned why the city is involved in trash collection at all, whether it's contracting with Genesee ARC or buying totes and requiring residents to get their garbage picked up by a single vendor.
Let residents hire their own contractors to pick up garbage, they suggested.
"There's an easy answer to all this," Meyer said. "The city gets out of the way and gets out of the trash business and lets homeowners make their own arrangements."
Meyer cited Saratoga Springs, a city of 27,000 people, as an example of a municipality that handles garbage collection that way. But after the meeting, Shawn McGoran, manager of municipal services for Allied Republic (the low bidder on the proposed trash contract) said in his experience, such an arrangement is highly unusual these days.
Ninety percent of all residents in WNY, he said, live an area with just one hauler, be it a contract provider or a city-operated service (such as Tonawanda).
"There's always issues and change is always an issue for folks, but we still believe we have something to offer the city," McGoran said, but was hesitant to comment further given state procurement rules.
"I think the proposal we submitted speaks for itself," McGoran said. "We're going to offer a great service as we do to 185,000 homes in Western New York, and we've been doing it for years."
After the public comments were closed, some council members made brief comments.
Rose Mary Christian wanted the world to know, regardless of what's been printed elsewhere, she has no prior business arrangement with Allied. Her current trash hauler for her business is Waste Management.
Councilman Pierluigi Cipollone took exception to the suggestion by a couple of speakers that the council was being led around by the nose by Molino. He said Molino is taking direction from the council and the proposal he brought forward was at the request of the council.
Cipollone also said he has personally checked the city's tax roles and confirmed a majority of residential property owners will save money under the proposed changes.
"It is true that more than 50 percent and close to 60 percent of the population will save money," Cipollone said. "We're not misleading anybody"
After the meeting, Molino was asked for examples of things people said that were either wrong or need clarification.
For one, Molino said, the idea that the city is going to take out a bond to borrow $500,000 is wrong. The city will borrow money, but it will be paid back before a bond is necessary, and the city will save money in the process.
"It's a temporary note to make an investment of $500,000 and the pay off is at a 2-1 ratio," Molino said. "You're saving more than $1 million."
He also said the city needs to get information out about what happens when carts are stolen or damaged. Clearly, he said, people don't understand the process. He said city staff will explain such things either at a future meeting or through other means once all the questions and issues have been gathered and reviewed.
A number of people wanted to know why there wasn't public discussion about changing how trash was collected prior to the request for bids going out.
Molino said public discussion just wasn't possible.
"Before, we were doing a lot of research and we were in discussions with the current vendor trying to make these changes," Molino said. "At that stage of the game, there really is not the ability to comment."
As for being the focal point of a lot of criticism Monday night, Molino said that's just part of the job.
"Council hired me to do a job and manage the city in the most efficient and effective means possible," Molino said. "They hired me to address controversial issues and not hide behind them. We are trying to address an issue. Is it going to create controversy? Sure. We’re trying to do what’s in the best interest of the community. That is my job. I understand that there is obviously two sides to every story. We dealt with this with the ambulance service. We dealt with this with dispatch, as well as with some financial problems. They’re very difficult issues to deal with. They’re emotional. This is an emotional issue. We understand that, but that doesn’t mean we don’t address it."
PHOTOS: Top, Steve Ognibene signs a petition during a rally in support of Genesee ARC prior to the council meeting; Carol Grasso speaks at the rally; Blake Elliott; Tim Buckley and Jim Russell; Maidul Kahn; people in the audience; Tom Houseknecht; Jim Rosenbeck; Jason Molino; George Van Nest; Kathy Briggs and Brooks Hawley.