Council set to battle mayor on transfer station relocation

Council set to battle mayor on transfer station relocation

Mayor says he’d slow plan, but he’s not willing to ditch it

PAWTUCKET – Members of the City Council are assuring residents and business owners of Fairlawn that they “have their backs” in their battle against a planned relocation and expansion of the city’s waste transfer station from Grotto Avenue to Concord Street.

Some council members, responding to “a host of quality of life challenges” cited by resident Patricia St. Germain and others last Wednesday, said they believe they have a say on whether the plan moves forward.

Councilor Tim Rudd, of District 6, where the transfer station would be located, said people’s quality of life is too important to ignore. He said the council needed to show those in the neighborhood that they are going to defend them.

St. Germain, who previously worked on Mayor Donald Grebien’s campaign but has been sharply critical of his plan to move the transfer station, said the proposal doesn’t solve any of the problems the mayor says will be solved by moving it from its current location to a new enclosed facility. By extending hours and quadrupling capacity, the facility “will take existing problems and put them on steroids.”

St. Germain said Grebien is putting financial benefits ahead of Fairlawn constituents’ right to a good quality of life.

Councilor John Barry III proposed a letter to the council’s attorney, Joel Votolato, asking for him to research the entire history of the proposal and what recourse the City Council might have, and the full council backed the motion.

Grebien this week defended his plan to relocate the transfer station from Grotto Avenue to Concord Street, saying city leaders have “the responsibility to provide quality services to all (Pawtucket) residents in the most cost effective manner possible.”

Bringing Pawtucket back from the “brink of bankruptcy” has required decisions to be made that were not based on “political expediency rather than best practices.”

The mayor said he’s committed to working with residents and city leaders to address concerns, and said he “will further slow down this process, if necessary …”

“I appreciate and respect the council’s interest in this, but it’s important that we as elected leaders work to find resolution,” he said. “This doesn’t happen by chance or rhetoric. It happens when we provide leadership to determine the best resolution.”

Grebien said he’s reached out the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and requested that they work with all Pawtucket stakeholders to facilitate the approvals process.

“They will help balance the competing interest of quality of life along with the financial obligations surrounding this relocation,” he said. “The last thing I want as mayor is a divided city. I’m committed to working with residents, council and businesses to do what is right for our city.”

Simply pushing the idea of not having a transfer station is not “out of the box thinking,” said Grebien, and will return the city to a past “tax and spend” model that proved unsuccessful.

St. Germain and others complained that Grebien did nothing to reach out to them about the transfer station in the two years since they participated in a small community meeting about it in 2015. Council members, including Council President David Moran, expressed strong concern that they too weren’t aware of how the plans were proceeding, and why past missed payments to the city from operator Link Environmental weren’t included in a timeline provided by the mayor.

Grebien countered that he met with Rudd back in 2014, and then with the neighborhood advocacy group a year later. There were no major objections voiced, he said, and with “seemingly genuine interest in the proposal for a new indoor facility,” officials “moved forward with the process.”

“After two years of work, we are here today going through the public, statutorily regulated process,” he said. “The Planning Commission, Zoning Board, and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management are all involved in the due diligence on this matter, and every step of the way involves public input, information and approvals.”

Though handling trash and recycling is not glamorous or politically exciting, it is one of the most basic and important functions at the local level, said Grebien. Pawtucket has had a transfer station for decades to provide residents with the ability to dispose of yard waste, trash, and recycling at their convenience and prevent taxpayers from shouldering additional tax burden, including rising costs for trash disposal and transportation directly to the landfill in Johnston, he said.

“By privatizing the transfer station when I became mayor, we saved taxpayers over $750,000 a year moving forward,” he said.

Glenn Chelo, owner of Chelo’s on the Providence/Pawtucket line, said during last week’s City Council meeting that the transfer station proposal “defies logic” and “defies common sense.” He mocked the Grebien administration’s assertion that the facility located on the railroad tracks, with trash hauled out by rail car and truck, will improve the quality of life in Fairlawn.

Pawtucket native Jeff Robbins questioned the urgency on $500,000 or more in revenue when Grebien has said the city could absorb the $900,000 in annual costs for a new baseball stadium on the riverfront. He joked that perhaps the city should purchase the site for the stadium and build the transfer station there. Robbins said he’s tired of the residents of Fairlawn being treated as “second class citizens,” and urged officials to “get the hell out of the trash business.”

Jim Semenkow, owner of The Car Store on Colfax Street, at the entrance to the proposed transfer station, questioned why Grebien is pushing the transfer station on a business that’s been a good neighbor for 20 years. If the trash facility comes in, “we’re done,” said Semenkow. “We are done.”

Resident Andrew McGuire said Pawtucket should be known for its arts businesses and other good things that bring people into the city, not for trash that drives them out.

Councilor Meghan Kallman said she has many concerns about the proposal, from environmental to traffic and rats, and said a larger discussion needs to be had about reducing trash volumes.

“This is not the kind of development that I signed on to promote for my community,” she said, noting that she already helped fight off a proposal for an asphalt plan. “We cannot afford to turn the west side of this city into the sacrifice zone.”

Rudd said City Council members have a number of items trending in their favor in blocking the transfer station, including a letter from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management stating that the agency wouldn’t issue a license for the facility without approval from both the mayor and council.

The councilman agreed with Robbins that the city shouldn’t be focused on giving money to the “billionaire owners” of the Pawtucket Red Sox, and can easily afford not to have the income from the transfer facility. He said the council should introduce a resolution presenting a “united front” against the facility based on moral, ethical and legal reasons.