STAMFORD — City lawmakers want to change the leaf-pickup ordinance to stop Mayor David Martin’s plan to require bagging when collection begins in six weeks.
Despite a warning from Martin that the change will be “unenforceable,” the Board of Representatives voted 19-9 to publish the amended ordinance, which would allow residents a choice — pile loose leaves at the edge of their property, which has been the practice for decades, or bag them.
The ordinance now requires only that the city collect leaves each fall. It does not specify a method.
The vote Wednesday night triggered a public hearing, which has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 27. Because a large number of residents are expected to speak, the hearing will be held in the board’s legislative chambers on the fourth floor of the Stamford Government Center. Following the hearing, representatives will vote on whether to pass the amended ordinance.
But it appears Martin’s office is moving ahead with the bagged-leaf program. Libby Carlson, special assistant to the mayor, said Thursday that informational materials are being prepared so they can be sent to residents by Oct. 1.
“This time frame will give homeowners enough time to learn about the program before the leaves start falling,” Carlson said in an email. “Unfortunately, we cannot wait until after the public hearing. We need to move now in order to give residents time.”
But time is why representatives want residents to have options this fall. Their reasons are spelled out in the proposed amendment, which says property owners are not prepared to shift to bagging after 40 years of curbside collection, and it “imposes an undue financial and physical burden on many of our most vulnerable residents.”
During Wednesday’s special board meeting, Martin addressed representatives before they voted, saying the city can no longer collect loose leaves, which he called “an operational nightmare” that puts the city at risk for violating state environmental regulations.
If the 40-member board passes the proposed amendment — signed by 22 of them — the city cannot carry it out, Martin said.
“This ordinance will be unenforceable because we don’t have the money,” the mayor said. “We have to pull the trigger now.”
Stamford is one of the few municipalities in the area that still collects loose leaves, he told the board.
Loose-leaf collection involves 100 city and seasonal employees, 60 pieces of equipment, and 4,000 hours of overtime, for a total cost of about $660,000, Martin said. Leaves end up in the street, where they clog storm drains and get washed into Long Island Sound, a violation of state environmental law for which the city can be fined, he said.
“This ordinance (amendment) will set us on a path of more conflict and legal challenges,” Martin said.
Despite that, he reiterated that the reason he is imposing the bag requirement now is because the board in May cut $1.4 million from his 2018-19 budget-increase request, forcing him to find savings in places he did not anticipate.
Martin said he originally budgeted for loose-leaf pickup, but is switching to bags because he thinks it will save $200,000. He has considered switching before but never devised a bag program, said the mayor, now in his second term.
The budget cut “was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the camel was already heavily loaded” because loose-leaf pickup is such a costly undertaking, Martin said.
Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18, one of the board members who proposed the amendment, said some people in his district bagged their leaves last year.
“They got collected,” McMullen said. “So this is not so much an option for two ways to collect leaves. This is how we’ve been doing it.”
Rep. Steven Kolenberg, R-16, said he’s been inundated with calls and emails from constituents, many of them seniors.
“The problem is the sudden and hurried implementation of this program,” Kolenberg said. “If we are going to do it, let’s … come up with a cohesive program that we can all support.”
Rep. Philip Giordano, D-10, said he lives in a co-op building where residents have bagged their leaves for 24 years.
“It’s easier, environmentally better, and less trouble” because loose leaves land in the street, making it difficult to walk and drive, Giordano said.
Martin offered a compromise, telling representatives he can perhaps do one round of loose-leaf pickup and a second round of bagged-leaf pickup this fall, but only if they help him raise revenue. Next month, he will bring a number of fee-hike requests before the board, Martin said, asking representatives to consider supporting them in “good faith.”
But 19 representatives voted to move the amendment forward. Nine opposed, one was excused, and 11 were absent, which is not unusual for special meetings because they are called on short notice.
If the board passes the amended ordinance on Sept. 27, the mayor has 10 days to sign it, according to the city code. If the mayor decides to veto, the board has 40 days to vote on whether to override him. An override requires that two-thirds of the 40 members agree, meaning 27 votes.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, said it’s unreasonable to impose a change that requires significant effort and expense from residents so soon before leaf collection begins. Sherwood said she recently appeared in a WCBS-TV News segment that compared Stamford with New Rochelle, N.Y., a city of 80,000 in Westchester County, where City Manager Charles Strome explained that residents received 10 months’ notice before a bagging program was started.
Officials held several meetings with landscapers and sent repeated notices to residents, Strome told CBS-TV. The key, he said, was “getting the political support for it ... because that’s always difficult, but advance notice and plenty of notice and information.”
Stamford must do that, Sherwood said.
“We need to work together,” she said. “To rush it like this isn’t fair.”