Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association President Harry Nespoli said recent cuts in the Sanitation Department's budget leave the city vulnerable to two seasonal plagues: rats that are already massing by trash baskets at popular summer spots, and snow he said nearly 1,000 of his members were unprepared for due to cutbacks in training.
A Sanitation Department spokesman said it was enlisting the public's cooperation in trying to avoid the kind of overflowing trash cans that can become feeding grounds for rodents, and that it would be "creative" in training newer Sanitation Workers in snow removal after being forced to abandon the summer snow drills that have traditionally been used to acclimate them.
Cites Declining Workforce
Mr. Nespoli, however, said even in a time of budgetary hardship, these cuts could come back to bite the department, and that Commissioner Kathryn Garcia wasn't taking into account a large number of retirements he predicted would leave it shorthanded this winter.
"I understand the city's position, but there are certain things that should be done, even with a lack of money," he said in an Aug. 5 phone interview.
The cuts required as the city gears up for a possible $9-billion shortfall in its budget due to declining tax revenues and extra expenditures that are both attributable to the toll taken by the coronavirus led the City Council to pare from its own allocation money that has traditionally paid for what the Sanitation-union leader called "rat trucks." Those vehicles focus on areas where they congregate and breed.
Workers assigned to them have two weapons in their arsenal: pesticide to kill the critters and more-frequent collections in popular summer gathering spots such as the city's beach areas and tourist locations like Times Square.
Tourism is decidedly down this summer, Mr. Nespoli conceded, but that hasn't prevented the litter baskets from being filled—and then some—in many parts of the city, and with the "basket trucks" not making frequent collections, rats are presented with extended feasts, he said.
Visible in Daytime
They have grown sufficiently brazen that they're "moving around in the daytime now," he said. "It's filthier and the baskets are overflowing."
The department has reduced Sunday and holiday basket service to save $1.7 million a year and eliminated the 4th-day curbside collection in Rat Zones to save another $1.5 million, but it said that utilization had been low on that 4th day.
Joshua Goodman, Sanitation's Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs, said in a statement, "The FY20-21 budget involved difficult choices across the city, including at Sanitation, but the safety and well-being of our sanitation workers is paramount, and we hope the Federal Government will step in to support critical operations. Regardless of what happens, all New Yorkers must work together to keep our streets clean—remember, homeowners and businesses are responsible for cleaning 18 inches from the curb, and throwing household or business trash in corner baskets is against the law."
Mr. Nespoli reiterated that he believed President Trump had been remiss in not pressing for the city and state to get more Federal aid that could avert some of the cuts. But he said that in cutting planned spending on snow removal by $52 million for the current fiscal year, the city was being complacent after a winter in which there was hardly any snowfall—something he said could wind up compromising the department's ability to respond well if its luck changed once the weather turned colder.
Past Prep: 'Dry' Runs
It has been traditional for newer Sanitation Workers to be asked to respond to what he called "mock snowstorms" this time of year, attaching plows to the front of their collection trucks and driving through neighborhoods that are not part of their regular routes while spending far more time on highways than most of them typically. All this is to get them acclimated for how their tasks would change if the city were blanketed by snow.
A total of 963 collection workers have been hired since the early months of 2019, Mr. Nespoli said, but their last training in this area occurred a year ago, meaning that without a refresher course, they figure to go more than 15 months between drills, leaving plenty of time for them to forget what they were taught.
"Maybe we won't have any snow again," he said, "but if you check the records," it's more likely that a winter that was notably short on flakes would be followed by one in which Mother Nature overcompensated.
The last time the city tried to save money by scrapping the large-scale snowstorm drills, the veteran labor leader said, was a decade ago, when he recalled then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg brushing off his appeal by saying, "Look, you gotta do more with less."
Got More, Had Less
That led to what might be described as a Perfect Storm: a blizzard the day after Christmas that year at a time when Mr. Bloomberg was out of the city—reportedly at his home in Bermuda. The top aides he deputized to handle the situation decided that rather than blow much of the city's snow budget by mobilizing SanWorkers the night before it was due to hit so that the plows would be swiftly deployed at the first drop of precipitation, they would wait to see whether the storm would fall short of expectations.
Instead, it exceeded them. It dumped 20 inches of snow in Central Park, and close to 10 inches more than that in other parts of the city where it wasn't going to be appreciated nearly as much. The delay in getting salt-spreaders and plows onto the streets left parts of Brooklyn and Queens impassable for emergency vehicles, and the decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority not to better prepare its trains and buses compounded the nightmare when commuters returned to work Dec. 27 by forcing the shutdown of several elevated train lines and leaving buses broken down and blocking traffic on some major arteries.
Mr. Nespoli said the current administration seemed unmoved by that bit of history and the embarrassment and agita that it brought to Mr. Bloomberg, a portion of which he passed along to the Deputy Mayor and Transportation Commissioner who had gambled and lost.
Referring to the city's Office of Management and Budget, he said, "OMB is saying we don't have the money [for snow drills for newer workers]—that's it. I don't know how you put a price on something like that if a big storm hits."
A Snowball in the Kisser
And, he added, "It's coming to the end of this administration," referring to the fact that this will be the last full winter in which Bill de Blasio will be serving as Mayor before his term ends on Jan. 1, 2022. "How do you want to go out?"
Apparently that thought occurred to someone else high up in city government. Early that evening, a department spokesman emailed to say that while the details weren't yet available, he was "hearing snow training has just been approved."
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