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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Shocked! Shocked! at Saratoga Garbage Gate

I want to tell you about Garbage Gate.

That’s my internal name for the story Lucian McCarty wrote the other day about the unsupervised and sometimes illegal dumping of garbage at the waste transfer/recycling facility on Weibel Avenue in Saratoga Springs.

It’s no Watergate (look it up, kids). But it’s a legitimate example of where you (community members), alert us (the media), to possible wrongdoing, and together we expose problems, demand accountability, and, on a really good day, spark positive change.

A while back someone I’ll call Garbage Throat called to tell me that a certain business was taking advantage of personal ties to the city Public Works Department by throwing their trash into a city truck and/or dumping the trash at the transfer station, after the employee there had left for the day, without using the $4 bags. We’re all supposed to pay four bucks to chuck garbage into the hole; it’s not fair for some people to do it for free. And if you have a lot of garbage, that can add up fast.

Garbage Throat is someone I would consider a reliable source. But he didn’t have photos, and some of his information was second-hand. Our initial “stakeouts” yielded nothing. With a staff or three reporters, Garbage Gate went to the back burner.

Then, a week ago Monday, I had in my trunk a box of encyclopedias to take to recycling at the transfer station. (The traumatic experience of having to throw out a set of encyclopedias will be the subject of another blog post.) Remembering Garbage Throat, I go to the transfer station at about 3:45, dumped the books into recycling and waited in my car with a clear view of the spot where people can throw their garbage into a big city-run compactor. The city employee was gone; the county employee who oversees the recycling operations was doing his thing, closing up the places where people can throw sorted recyclables, not giving the city compactor a second glance.

A white Dodge Ram pulled up to the hole by the city compactor. I watched a woman make a few trips to the back of her truck to toss stuff out in what looked like kitchen white garbage bags. (The $4 city bags are clear and clearly labeled.) Then she threw in what looked like a big plastic jug (that should have been dropped into the recycling bin a few feet away). As she prepared to toss a handful of paper junk over the edge, I got out of my car and walked over. I introduced myself and said something to the effect that she didn’t seem to be using the required city bags. 

She did not take kindly to the low-key but unexpected confrontation. I jotted down the license plate. “Barbara, get a life,” she said, declining to tell me her name or to talk about what she was doing there. “Why don't you go write about Michele Riggi.”

It was clear to me that this woman knew the drill; she knew when to show up, when the city DPW guy would be off duty. It was clear, too, that she wasn’t the big fish we’d been tipped off about. Would we still be able to reel that one in?

During the week, McCarty was on the case. He talked to the county DPW guy, who wouldn’t say anything for publication. Later, though, the county DPW head told McCarty word about the unsupervised and sometimes illegal dumping had been passed up, but never passed on to the city. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

During the rest of the week, as if on cue, the alleged illegal dumper and about half a dozen others showed up after the city worker was gone. But, contrary to the tip from Garbage Throat, all used the official $4 city bags.

Were these after-hours regulars using proper bags all along? Was someone tipped off that The Saratogian was on to them? Don’t know. Probably never will. But we still had a story: In the 15 or 20 minutes after the city DPW guy leaves and the county guy locks the big gate, anyone in the know can dump whatever they want into the city compactor.

We took that information to the City Council member responsible for DPW, Skip Scirocco, who did an excellent Captain Renault, the Vichy officer in Casablanca who closes up Rick’s café: I'm shocked, shocked! 

OK, Scirocco wasn’t exactly shocked, but said it was the first he’d heard of such thing. “It could happen,” he said. “If they’re doing it, shame on them.”

A while back, when a Sound Off caller complained that the city compactor was closed before the 3:55 p.m. posted closing time of the facility, Scirocco explained that the city person leaves 10 minutes earlier (or 15 or 20) to get back to City Hall to turn in the day’s receipts. He didn’t explain — and I didn’t realize at the time — that the unsupervised compactor was still accessible. He didn’t think it necessary to modify the sign to let people know the city compactor closed earlier than the county recycling portion.

On Monday, when McCarty asked Scirocco for comment about the unsupervised dumping, he was ready with a solution: He would add a second person and install a video camera. It’s plenty busy for two people, he said.

Really? How about coordinating with the county to close the whole place up 15 minutes earlier, as commenter Mr. Jack Daniel suggested on McCarty’s story? Or splitting the day between two people, so that the second person’s shift ends after 4 p.m.? Or cordoning off the city area earlier and asking the county guy to alert the city to scofflaws? 

Surely there are better solutions than daily overtime for one person or devoting two people to hang around a garbage hole in a city where DPW hours are already dear. And to the Dodge Ram dumper: Leave Michele Riggi out of this.


Blogger Eyeinthesky said...

Thanks fpr working on this. Geat job. The person in the white Dodge Ram could be charged with theft of services.

August 8, 2012 at 10:57 PM 
Anonymous Kyle Hughes said...

I go there to recycle about once a month and I've seen this happen many times. I have told the attendant, phoned the DPW office to complain and mentioned it face to face to a city supervisor. Nothing was done until the Saratogian reported it, so thank you!

August 9, 2012 at 10:14 PM 
Anonymous Kyle Hughes said...

I go there to recycle about once a month and I've seen this happen many times. I have told the attendant, phoned the DPW office to complain and mentioned it face to face to a city supervisor. Nothing was done until the Saratogian reported it, so thank you!

August 9, 2012 at 10:14 PM 
Anonymous Kyle Hughes said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

August 9, 2012 at 10:15 PM 
Blogger Fresh Ink said...

Thanks for the note, Kyle. Shocked, shocked, I tell you! Amazing. Wonder if I will hear from anyone else who not only saw the problem, but tried to get it fixed. (By the way, the comment I deleted was an inadvertent duplicate.)

August 9, 2012 at 11:09 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael said

The DPW and county should investigate contracting out this operation. There might be a cost savings to the taxpayers.

August 10, 2012 at 7:35 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cora^the City did put it out to bid. They had one responds. And they wanted to use all the land out there for garbage for all of their pick up. Do we want every one elses garbage?

August 11, 2012 at 7:48 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that this story should be called Witch Gate. I never remember a story about the Handicap ramp on the Casino, where the brick was layed on the ground. Had to be replaced. Water plant had not been touched in 40 years. Gas pumps, you should see how the other Commish put them in. Never did any work under ground, ect. Those are the storys you should be going for. How much do you think just some of those project cost? Scirocco is doing a great job, keep up the good work Skip.

August 11, 2012 at 7:57 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes, your story is a public service and will now result in some remedial action by City officials, but surely there are other abuses that deserve some attention.

Without the reporting of such things as the ongoing Indoor Recreation Facility operating deficit, City political appointees who seemingly are allowed to work at other jobs on City time, etc. they will continue.

August 11, 2012 at 10:52 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your solution Barbara was a simple well thought out business solution. I'm afriad that that type of thinking is not apparent in DPW.

August 11, 2012 at 11:48 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice job Barb,it was my understanding the shocked commissioner knew about this last yr and did nothing,why aren't the local authorities doing something?

August 11, 2012 at 12:44 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Operating income at the Rec Center is somewhat down from original projection but growing. It is the indirect effect that is filling hotels. Restaurants, c-stores and local merchants that has made a major impact. The issue is a bogus issue as this will continue to build the overall economic impact on Saratoga Springs. As far as management at DPW there is none. Decisions may be made but follow up is desparately needed. I can recall when the Park and broadway recieved daly visits and Broadway was pristine. You can pick up a trash can cover without getting your hand stuck to the cover. I will give the department credit for a number of infrastructure underground projects but as far as daily operations none. No OT for a sinkhole but a foreman working Saturday on OT will a long term employee with 10% productivity to do what?? You can't make this up.

August 15, 2012 at 8:52 AM 

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