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Raking in a new deal

October 4, 2018

STAMFORD — It appeared Wednesday that a majority of city lawmakers will sign a letter Mayor David Martin wants to see before he restores loose-leaf pickup this fall.

Martin wants members of the Board of Representatives to assure him that they will fairly and promptly consider fee increases he plans to propose before he agrees to rescind bagged-leaf pickup, set to begin Oct. 29.

With trees starting to turn, the back-and-forth has created confusion for residents, who this week received postcards saying they must bag their leaves for the city to collect them.

Martin said he wants representatives to say they will help him raise revenue to pay for the more costly loose-leaf pickup and other expenses.

“I am very optimistic that we will be able to return to the traditional leaf-pickup program,” the mayor said Wednesday morning. “I believe the majority of the board does want to help, and I am not asking for anything that isn’t part of their responsibilities.”

Board President Matthew Quinones said Wednesday evening that 22 of the 40 representatives had signed the letter.

“From what I can tell, we’ve met the threshold set by the mayor,” Quinones said.

5-month conflict

The letter, written by Quinones, reflects the controversy behind this year’s pickup. Martin dropped the decades-long practice of collecting loose leaves at the curb and instituted the bag program after representatives made a last-minute, $1.4 million cut to his requested budget increase in May.

To find savings, Martin cut the Fourth of July fireworks show, lifeguard hours and stopped lining some ballfields. But residents and representatives reacted strongly when he announced in late summer that leaves must be bagged because it would save at least $227,000. Martin said it also would help the city comply with state regulations requiring that leaves be kept out of storm drains to prevent nitrogen and phosphorous from harming Long Island Sound.

Quinones wrote in his letter to Martin that the 11th-hour switch left residents in a bind, transferring the pickup expense and effort from the city to them. His statement is consistent with an overwhelming board vote Monday that amended the leaf-collection ordinance to allow loose and bagged pickup.

“We do not believe that this is the appropriate year to discontinue the loose-leaf program. Nevertheless, we understand your environmental and operational concerns, and the need to manage the city’s finances,” Quinones wrote to Martin. “Therefore, provided that the loose-leaf program is reinstated this year under its traditional terms, myself along with the below signatories agree to use good-faith efforts to, on a timely basis, review and enact reasonable proposals to raise revenue.”

Not binding

Quinones attached another letter addressed to the board, saying he welcomes responses from members who disagree with the “non-binding compromise” with Martin.

“My efforts to garner a majority of the board to add their names to the letter are to ensure that we have loose-leaf pickup, if that’s the vehicle representatives have to ensure that the program will continue this year,” Quinones said Wednesday. “I know my constituents want this program, and if it means I have to sign a letter to look at fees when they come down, well, I would have done that anyway.”

Rep. Mary Fedeli, R-17, the board’s minority leader, took a similar view.

“I signed the letter because I have said I will review the fees in good faith. My word is my word, so I have no problem putting my name to it,” Fedeli said. “It doesn’t mean I will vote for every fee the mayor sends us, but I will certainly review it.”

Martin said most of the fees he wants to increase have not changed in many years, and Stamford undercharges compared to other municipalities. The ones he’s considering include health inspection fees, building fees, and parking charges and fines, he said.

It can take two to three months to pass and enact fee increases, and he would like the board to do it soon because he needs revenue this fiscal year, Martin said.

Fedeli said she understands.

“There have been some issues where fees took four to six months to pass, and I don’t think we have that kind of time now,” she said. “We have to look at the fees carefully, and get our questions asked and answered, but we need to do it in an expedient manner.”

Roped in?

Among those who refused to sign the letter is Rep. Rodney Pratt, D-9, the board’s majority leader. It’s too late to switch to bagging, and the city must try to improve loose-leaf pickup before eliminating it, Pratt said, but he has too many questions about the request for signatures to add his name to the letter.

“The people spoke — they don’t want bagged pickup. We passed an ordinance giving them the choice,” Pratt said. “How do we create an ordinance then turn around and say we will raise fees because of it?”

He wrote the board a letter explaining his view, Pratt said.

“We took an oath to serve our communities. Why would we sign a document to reinforce that, like our oath doesn’t mean anything?” he said. “To me, signing a letter makes it seem like I am roped into doing something I might decide is not fair. I have to keep an open mind, that is my job. It feels like I would be signing away my right to choose, like I’m working for the mayor’s office instead of the public.”

Martin said he wanted signatures because “I want to know the count. I think the majority of the board recognizes what’s necessary to move the city forward. If we all accept our roles, we can get things done.”

The ordinance passed Monday cannot be enforced this year because there is no money to pay for loose-leaf pickup unless the city raises more revenue, Martin said.

“The idea of using ordinances to force the mayor to do things that we can’t afford to do won’t work,” he said.

The city will mail new postcards explaining the dates and rules for loose-leaf pickup, Martin said. The second set of mailings to all 30,000 households will cost about $10,000, he said.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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