By Benjamin Joe
A crowd – standing room only – faced North Tonawanda officials at the Jan. 7 public hearing for the proposed changes to the city’s sanitation program. Several residents approached the board with deep objections to the recommendations proposed by Niagara County Environmental Science Coordinator Dawn Timm and DPW Superintendent Mark Zellner.
Many residents said replacing monthly bulk-trash pickup with a program that would only take in three large items, three times a year, was unacceptable; the solution lay in enforcing codes and curbing abuse of the program– not punishing the law-abiding residents who use it.
“Why not go after the abusers?” resident Bill Fritzke said to applause. “I used to teach school and something I used to abhor was group punishment. ‘Somebody was talking back there, now you all have to stay afterschool!’ – It’s the easiest! – ‘I don’t have to identify who it is, you’re all staying!’ Problem solved.”
“This is a cost-savings measure, sir. We don’t want you to pay those extra taxes for all those abusers. We’re trying to look at this comprehensibly,” said Eric Zadzilka, Common Council president. He referred to his earlier statement when he detailed the savings to be over $500,000 a year according to projections. Zadzilka stressed costs would increase regardless, because of uncontrollable forces, which was the reason for the study.
“I agree,” Fritzke told Zadzilka. “I don’t want to pay for the abusers, but at the same time, I don’t want to cut my services. If I do some home remodeling, or if I have a contractor come in, and do my house and my work, and we put some stuff out to the curb? – I’ve done this maybe once a year, twice a year – why should someone say I can’t?
“My wife read a post that said the codes will be enforced more. A better question would be, ‘Why aren’t the codes being enforced now?’ “
More applause and hollering came from the crowd. Resident after resident stood up to state their opposition.
“Personally, I am against the changes,” Joseph Blake said. “I understand that is what you are here for, but I am against it. I understand that the study was done and the numbers came in at $2 million in savings over five years. Although $2 million sounds like a great number and I applaud the initiative, I must question the results. The only census numbers I could find were for 2017 at 30,475 people in North Tonawanda. Doing the math over five years, this means the savings of $13.12 a year.”
One of the reasons residents stated for their outrage was the lack of information on the public hearing. Many of them had not heard of the proposals until mere hours before the hearing was scheduled. Fritzke said if Alderman-at-Large Austin Tylec hadn’t posted the event on Facebook, he’d never have heard about it.
“I got kind of crucified for this meeting,” Tylec said. “Yes, we did publicize there was a public hearing and the title was ‘Proposed changes to the city’s sanitation program.’ I didn’t really know what that meant. Sanitation program? Bulk-pickup, right? That’s what everyone knows. We did everything legally as to presenting items. It’s just, as I put it, everyone raising the bar.
“How many people here didn’t know about this until my Facebook post today or some reference to it? My argument, as I received some differences, was we should’ve put the study out there. It wasn’t there online and I didn’t notice that until last night. Whether or not it was intentional, it wasn’t out there. I’m sorry that it was last minute, but it’s something at least today.
“I am glad to see everybody here today, but I, for one, believe if we’re going to have a public hearing, vague descriptions of them is not appropriate. A 113-page packet to inform residents, that’s appropriate. For you guys to actually be informed and come up here with real questions based on stuff that we gave you to get educated on. So, that’s what I believe, at least.”
The crowd applauded.
Zadzilka said, “I believe that information has to get out there effectively, it has to get there completely and not half information. I want you all to be informed. I don’t want to have a half of a post up there and then posts come in and there’s misconceptions. … That’s not a good way to get out the message. By having these folks work diligently on the study, present the information and have you comment on it, is what we invited you all out here for.”
“We didn’t give them the information,” Tylec responded. “That’s the point that they’re making.”
“At this point, I think we need to bring it back to what initially we were talking about,” said Clerk/Treasurer Matt Parrish. “I hope that everyone remembers that it’s our job up here as elected officials to explore every possible cost-saving option whether we are going to do this or not. This is why we’re having this public hearing, and this is why we’re exploring this idea. That’s simply what it is right now, is an idea. This is not set in stone.
“We are probably going to have another public hearing. I think at this point, we can safely say that, seeing as there is so much public input. We absolutely appreciate all of the input. That is what this is for. I just ask that we remain constructive and keep an open mind and understand that our jobs are to just explore ideas. That’s what we’re trying to do, whether they are good or bad – maybe we don’t do this at all – that’s what we’re trying to do. Explore cost-saving measures.”
Other issues discussed that night during the council’s regular meeting included the Gateway Park Improvements Project, as well as the Empire State Development Smart Growth Funds Downtown North Tonawanda Placemaking Project.
“This (the Gateway Park Improvement Project) is the electrical contract portion of the bathroom facilities and the new seating areas in Gratwick Park. We’re just closing off the project. There was minor change orders with electrical code violation fixes and other minor things overall,” said Chelsea Spahr, North Tonawanda civil engineer. “That was $3,547 out of an almost $102,000 project. The overall project with the general electric and Sweeney dock project actually came in $25,000 under budget, so we did pretty well with both projects.”
“The other one is the placemaking award,” she continued. “We received three bids from 4th Generation Construction, Edbauer Construction and Amherst Construction. 4th Generation was the low bid. I believe the total amount that we are awarding is $1,392,900. That’s through Empire State Development Smart Growth Funds, and that would include the bump-outs for the better of pedestrian safety.
“The Charlie Fleischman Triangle Park will be getting expanded. Some improvements on there – alleyway lighting – and the only thing we will not be doing at this point is the clock tower that came in significantly over what was originally budgeted. The low bid was $280,000. We budgeted it around $150,000. We’re looking for other grant monies and potentially do some value engineering with this project to free up some monies.”
“Is there a particular time frame where we have to spend this $150,000? Are we setting aside $150,000 for this?” Tylec asked.
“That was wrapped in with this whole project,” Spahr said. “There was $110,000 through the county. That money paid for the design of the clock tower, but that wasn’t solely for the clock tower, it was the design piece and the expansion and modifications for the Charlie Fleischman Park.”
“So, we don’t have a piece of the pot that’s sitting on the side, waiting,” Tylec said. He then asked if there were any alternatives to the clock tower that could use the Empire State Development funds.
“Yes. (Also) we’re going to do some value engineering,” Spahr said. “The landscaping, in particular, the landscape architect put in some things like structural soils, which are better for tree growth and things … but it is a very expensive thing versus regular soils. … We do have budget money now that we didn’t put the clock tower in, but it blew the budget.”
“Do you have an alternate to it that might be added (with those funds)?” Tylec asked.
“We are going to include the alleyway lighting,” Spahr said. “The public would really like to see the alley between Manhattan Street parking lot and Webster (lit). … Funding through Empire State Development is to make an area more walkable.”
The Gateway Park Improvements Project and Empire State Development Smart Growth Funds Downtown North Tonawanda Placemaking Project were unanimously approved by the council.