Pawtucket Council agrees to three-month extension with Link

Pawtucket Council agrees to three-month extension with Link

Residents and business owners, many of them from Fairlawn, turned out for a March 1 forum to discuss a planned new waste transfer station on Concord Street in Pawtucket. Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the owner of Mixed Magic Theatre where the event was held, said he was so disappointed in the tone of the meeting that he won't host another one unless parameters are set ahead of time. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Forum on waste transfer station descends into chaos

PAWTUCKET – The city is now operating under a three-month extension with Link Environmental for waste services at the Grotto Avenue transfer facility, even as the future of the facility in Pawtucket appears to be in doubt.

The City Council voted on Monday to approve an extension with the company and waive fees to the city, but members said they weren’t happy about feeling they had a “gun to our head” or were “being bullied” into doing so after Link warned that it would no longer be able to afford its month-to-month agreement with the city to operate the Grotto Avenue transfer station.

The Grotto Avenue operation is a separate issue, said council members, and it’s unfortunate that Link and Mayor Donald Grebien are tying it to the controversial proposal to construct a new and expanded transfer station on Concord Street. They expressed many concerns about the way Link has done business.

Councilor Tim Rudd voted against the extension, saying he thinks it’s time for Pawtucket “to get out of the trash business” and saying he didn’t appreciate the council having its “backs against the wall during an election year.” If the city can absorb a $1 million hit on keeping the Pawtucket Red Sox, it can certainly do the same to protect the quality of life for residents, said Rudd.

Council members agreed with Pat St. Germain, of the Fairlawn Against Crime Together group, who said the ultimatum from Link was not about an equal partnership, but based on “extortion.”

Council President Pro-Tempore Terry Mercer set up Monday’s meeting after the council received the ultimatum from Link. He came up with the idea to slash the proposed one-year contract extension with Link down to six months, a move hailed by his colleagues, and that timeframe was then amended at the request of Councilor Meghan Kallman. She called Mercer’s proposal “a thoughtful olive branch” that wasn’t necessarily deserved.

Whether the council approved the extension or not, the city wasn’t getting the money from Link, said Mercer, and leaders risked losing $100,000 each month in costs to dispose of trash. He wanted a six-month agreement so officials have the time to come up with a workable solution without incurring those monthly costs.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest to cut off our nose to spite our face,” he said.

The council’s vote included a stipulation that the administration issue a request for proposals from companies interested in running trash transfer operations on Grotto Avenue through a 12-month contract starting Sept. 1, though members acknowledged that they don’t expect many suitors.

Councilor Mark Wildenhain agreed that a six-month window was a better idea, saying officials have no plan in place for extra trash hauling if a bid doesn’t come back in three months. He said he appreciates everyone’s passion, but taxpayers across the city will be on the hook if the city has to incur $1.3 million in new trash costs.

Monday’s vote followed up a heated meeting last Thursday of a stakeholder group tasked with finding transfer station options in the midst of a standoff over whether Link should be allowed to build a much larger transfer station on Concord Street. Neighbors there continue to express strong opposition to the plan, citing numerous quality of life concerns.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, owner of Mixed Magic Theatre on Mineral Spring Avenue, where last Thursday’s meeting was held, said he’s no stranger to passionate dialogue and strong words, but what he witnessed at that meeting was way over the line of decency and appropriate debate. When a man in the front row made one of the most inappropriate comments he’s ever heard, said Pitts-Wiley, he wanted to shut the whole thing down.

“I was embarrassed for the city,” he said. “This was Trump-era loss of decency, and the people who sat there and said nothing after his comment, they’re just as guilty as he was.”

Asked whether he spoke up himself, Pitts-Wiley said he did not.

Pitts-Wiley, as with many others in the room last Thursday an opponent of developing a new waste transfer facility on Concord Street, says he’ll only host another forum at Mixed Magic if two stipulations are met:

• He has the authority to shut down the meeting at any time if it gets out of hand.

• And the forum concentrates only on solutions for the city’s waste transfer services.

“The whole thing disintegrated into a shouting match,” he said.

The inappropriate comment from an audience member “was tacky, ridiculous, and he undermined the whole effort,” he added.

City and company officials also “didn’t represent themselves very well at all,” added Pitts-Wiley.

There were indications early on that the opening meeting of the stakeholder group, held under the guidance of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership, would not go smoothly. When Dylan Zelazo, chief of staff to Grebien, announced that Grebien would not be attending, the crowd murmured and someone shouted, “no balls!” Zelazo then responded that Grebien’s father had unexpectedly died that day, silencing the room.

Grebien on Monday said he felt the opening meeting was beneficial, though he expressed concern over the “level of discourse” at the forum.

“We’re better than that,” he said.

The city is at a point where it must decide the future of the waste transfer station and waste-hauling contract, Grebien said.

“The vote tonight by the City Council to extend the contract for three months with Link Environmental is significant,” he said. “Although Link requested a year extension, it is my hope that they will be receptive to this pathway. This extension will allow operations to continue at the Grotto Avenue facility in the short-term as the city continues to look at a citywide solution including the long-term needs of Pawtucket without incurring additional cost or burden to the residents.”

The council and administration need to make the final decision after weighing all the facts including the impact to the neighborhood and the additional costs to the city, he added.

“I understand this was a difficult vote, but tonight’s action shows that the City Council is committed to finding a workable solution to this critical issue,” said Grebien.

Council members on Monday noted that Councilor Larry Tetreault originally warned when the city privatized trash services in 2012 what might happen with no contingency plan in place if the transfer station operator ever tried to back out.

Councilor John Barry III said Monday that this situation “never, never should have come to this.” He said Link’s threat to stop accepting waste in an attempt to get an extension is “so nefarious.”

“Who wants to do business with this company anymore?” he asked.

Councilor Albert Vitali Jr. said he was tempted at first to “tell the tenant to take a hike,” but he agreed with Mercer’s proposal to protect taxpayers.

Also Monday, Councilor Sandra Cano received approval from colleagues for a letter to the Grebien administration asking for alternative options if Pawtucket does move toward getting out of the trash business.

Council President David Moran said he’s “sick and tired of this crap,” and said fixing the situation should be the top priority of the Grebien administration. Giving Link six months would have been “too much of a lifeline,” he said, and it would have sent the message that officials were willing to bend too far. The city needs to take control of the situation, he said, and call Link’s bluff.