Bethlehem City Council appears likely to kill Mayor John Callahan’s proposal to switch to a single-hauler system of garbage collection.
Though no official vote was taken during a marathon seven-hour City Council budget hearing that began Tuesday night and stretched into early this morning, four out of seven council members appeared to be opposed to the plan.
An overwhelming majority of those who attended the hearing also appeared to be opposed to the change. Twenty-nine of them got up to address City Council and only two of them expressed support for single-hauler trash collection.
A tense, standing-room-only crowd – most of them there to talk about or hear the discussion about garbage collection – spilled out through the doorways of the Town Hall rotunda at the start of the meeting.
But the crowd would have to wait for council to get to the trash discussion. For the first three hours, council heard from and discussed city emergency services departments – fire, emergency medical services and police.
Included in that discussion was the city’s 911 emergency call center, for which Callahan has proposed a new dedicated .76-mill tax to support. That accounts for 60 percent of the mayor’s proposed 8½ percent real estate tax increase.
Even after the trash discussion began, the impatience among some audience members boiled over while council discussed the proposal with members of the administration.
“Some of us have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” said one trash hauler who kept trying to interrupt the discussion, but was asked by Council President Eric Evans to stay seated and be quiet.
“We’ve had a 50 percent attrition rate [since the start of the meeting] and I don’t think that’s a good model for participatory democracy,” said Al Wirth, a Lehigh University politics professor and a member of the Sierra Club who said he opposed single hauler for environmental reasons.
Many of those who spoke out against single-hauler collection were the owners of small hauling companies currently licensed to serve clients in Bethlehem who feared they would not be able to stay in business if single hauler is initiated.
Many were customers who said they preferred to have a choice of collectors that gives them the option of paying less for putting out less garbage and providing a higher quality of service than they believe they would get with a single city-contracted hauler.
Currently, city residents are required to hire their own trash collector, making Bethlehem the largest city in Pennsylvania without single-hauler trash collection.
City officials argued that the lack of a single hauler has led to illegal dumping on empty lots and out-of-the-way corners of the city.
At one point, administration officials showed a slide show that depicted trashed front yards, empty lots and sidewalks, while acting Health Director Kristen Wenrich talked about the prevalence of garbage complaints that come through her office.
She estimated that the equivalent of one full-time department employee deals with garbage complaints continually.
Wenrich and Mike Palos, the city’s chief housing inspector, held out single hauler as the solution to the illegal dumping problem. In hundreds of cases where a home has been trashed, the resident’s lack of a trash hauler has been the reason, officials said.
“This is a difficult decision you are going to have to make if you want to improve the quality of life in Bethlehem,” Palos told council. “It’s not the haulers. It’s the system. Our system isn’t working.”
A majority of council members appeared unmoved by the argument, however.
Evans said he has never received such a negative reaction out in the community for any proposal. Councilman Robert Donchez said he thought single hauler needed more debate and discussion.
Councilwoman Jean Belinski said her father was an independent trash hauler and that she favored keeping the existing system. Councilman David DiGiacinto also seemed to be in opposition to the administration’s plan.