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Home » Valentine's Day » Seneca Falls voters weigh garbage odors against fear of tax hikes: Will landfill’s mandated 2025 closing date stick?

Seneca Falls voters weigh garbage odors against fear of tax hikes: Will landfill’s mandated 2025 closing date stick?

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

The upcoming election Tuesday for two seats on the Seneca Falls town board could well decide whether the state’s largest landfill, Seneca Meadows Inc., will be forced to close on Dec. 31, 2025.

Residents of the town that bills itself as the birthplace of Women’s Rights and a gateway to lake and wine country are sharply — sometimes angrily — split.

Should they hold their noses and continue to put up with landfill stench in order to keep SMI’s annual “host agreement” payments of $3 million-plus flowing? Or should they cut the financial cord and let the town board make up the difference by raising taxes and/or cutting services?

“Fifty years is enough. We can work this out without the landfill,” said Bruce Bonafiglia, president and CEO of BonaDent Dental Laboratories, which employs roughly as many locally as the landfill one mile to its north.

Two decades ago, Bonafiglia moved the family-owned company from Auburn back to his hometown because he understood SMI would be closing in 2010. Instead it grew immense, accepting out-of-state wastes. Now when a prized job candidate visits he worries which way the wind is blowing.

“Some days the air is just as fresh as it should be in the heart of the Finger Lakes,” Bonafiglia said. “Some days it’s nauseating.”

But his former high school classmate and lifelong “dear friend,” Town Supervisor Mike Ferrara, counts the costs of turning SMI away.

Property taxes “for sure” will rise over the next five years “unless spending is greatly reduced,” Ferrara said in a recent email. “I mean cutting positions that will affect health and safety issues like police protection and water/sewer.”

In recent weeks, election campaign mailings to potential voters paid for by SMI and its proxies have hammered home the prospect of jarring tax hikes if the landfill is forced to close in 2025.

One “Taxpayer Alert” mailer supporting Republican candidates Kaitlyn Laskoski and Frank Sinicropi read: “Seneca Falls Tax and Spenders are at it again! Democrats Doug Avery and Dave DeLelys have voted to increase your taxes. We know they will do it again. Let’s make sure they don’t get another chance.”

Laskoski and Sinicropi seek to oust sitting board members Avery and DeLelys, who support a local law that requires SMI to shut down in four years.

If the Republicans win, they likely will have the votes on the five-member town board to repeal Local Law 3 and extend the landfill’s life well into the 2030s.

DeLelys, a cancer survivor who recently lost his left eye to radiation treatment, said his life’s goal now is to stop them. “I’m not battling Kaitlyn and Frank,” DeLelys said. “I’m battling the landfill and what they’re spending to beat us.”

Earlier this month, the group Responsible Solutions for New York — funder of the ‘Taxpayer Alert’ mailer and several others — reported receiving $60,000 in contributions from Waste Connections US Inc., an affiliate of SMI’s Texas-based parent company.

Waste Connections employs 16,000 at dozens of North American locations and has market capitalization of $34 billion. It acquired Seneca Meadows in 2016 and continues to be a key outlet for New York City’s trash. It takes 6,000 tons of waste a day from 47 New York counties, five other states and Canada.

In 2018, SMI floated the possibility of boosting its annual “host” payment to the town to $5 million from $3.2 million if it could push back its closure date to the year 2037. But the offer lacked majority support on the town board and soon died.

The following Fall, a Waste Connections unit contributed more than $90,000 toward RSNY’s efforts to elect Ferrara and Republican board member Dawn Dyson.

Ferrara squeaked by Avery to win the town supervisor spot, but Democrat Steve Churchill also won a board seat, giving the Democrats a precarious 3-2 voting advantage in protecting Local Law 3.

Three weeks after that November 2019 election, SMI filed a 31-page legal memo in a lawsuit against the Town of Seneca Falls and its board that challenged Local Law 3 on the grounds that a “conflicted and biased” board member had “poisoned” the town board’s vote to adopt it in 2016.

While a Seneca County Supreme Court judge dismissed the case last year, a state appeals court in Rochester ruled 5-0 in August that the case may proceed. So the landfill’s lawsuit against the town remains active.

The allegedly “biased” 2016 town board member, Annette Lutz, died in April 2019 after being diagnosed with breast cancer and Crohn’s Disease. Two years earlier, she had testified at a state Department of Environmental Conservation hearing that her health problems were traceable to the landfill, which is directly across State Route 414 from Waterloo Container, where she worked. Her husband, Bill Lutz, owns the company, which employs about 80.

In that August 2017 testimony, Annette Lutz had stated that doctors told her that “my environment was most likely the cause of my body coming down with Crohn’s. And that environment was the dump.”

While any possible health effects of the landfill’s air emissions are anecdotal and unconfirmed, Bill Lutz noted that six schools are located within 2.5 miles of SMI.

Jackie Augustine of Geneva said she’d like to see the state and local “powers that be” pay more attention to the chemical composition of the emissions that “a private company is permitted to unleash on us…

“It’s not just a nuisance. It’s a health concern,” said Augustine, a co-founder of the website, which tracks landfill odor complaints

SMI now controls the process for reporting landfill odor complaints to the DEC.

Ferrara said he had tried unsuccessfully to convince the town board to spend $90,000 on air monitoring to “completely remove SMI from the equation.”

“I wanted to purchase odor detection technology that would identify odors, though sensors placed throughout the town, provide an (Internet) app for residents that would identify their exact location at the time of odor detection, provide wind and air pressure readings, all state of the art information,” Ferrara said.

He suggested that new odor controls and independent odor detection could be part of a renegotiated host agreement (which would assume an extended life for the landfill).

Churchill criticized Ferrara’s proposal as “isolated to a few collection points and costly to taxpayers.”

Air quality issues are the main reason the town board has refused to renew SMI’s local permit to operate since December 2019.

Last Fall the board asked SMI to provide $20,000 to enhance the website and to provide evidence it was complying with state limits on the emission of hydrogen sulfide.

In response, a lawyer representing SMI wrote that the landfill “already meets” its state air requirements and that the proposed permit conditions would “constitute grounds to terminate the 2007 Host Community Agreement.”

SMI continues to track odor complaints from the public, while continues to map those it receives.

Meanwhile, in July 2020 SMI quietly applied to the DEC to modify its permit to allow for a 50-acre expansion between two existing mounds of garbage. If granted, the new permit would provide space for 15 years of waste dumping at current fill rates.

Town board members have said they didn’t learn about the expansion application until December, four months after it was filed.

In January, the board voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution asking the DEC to deny the landfill’s permit application. Democrats Avery, DeLelys and Churchill voted ‘yes,’ while Ferrara and Dyson voted ‘no.’

This past May, the board voted 4-1 to formally deny the landfill’s local permit for 2020, leaving the local permit for 2021 unaddressed. Only Ferrara voted ‘no.’

Before the vote, Sinicropi had voiced his opinion that the town should give SMI its permit in order to obtain “a stronger position to negotiate any remedies to any issues,” according the meeting minutes.

Sinicropi also reportedly said he discouraged the use of the term “dump” because it is “disrespectful” to the landfill. He went on to address the potential health risks landfill air emissions might pose to school children. “Mr. Sinicropi said he cares about the children in this community,” the minutes said, “and he certainly doesn’t want them to be exposed to dangerous situations, but using them to cause hysteria or as pawns for the odor from the landfill is a terrible thing.”

He also stated that he believed that Local Law 3 stood on unsound legal ground and that “the landfill is a multi-million dollar business, and they are not going away without a fight.”

Sinicropi, the elected treasurer of Seneca County, did not respond to a questionnaire on landfill issues that was handed to him or to an offer to be interviewed. Laskoski, an instructor in the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office, also declined to respond to similar offers. She has posted a Facebook video.

Landfill manager Kyle Black and SMI community relations director Mark Benjamin did not respond to emailed questions. When asked to sit for a face-to-face interview, Black said in on Oct. 18 email: “Thank you for your offer, unfortunately we are tied up the next couple of weeks in our 2022 budget planning process.”

Meanwhile, SMI and supporters have taken out multiple full-page newspaper advertisements and engaged in letters-to-the-editor duels with Democratic supporters on behalf of Sinicropi and Laskoski.

And the original agenda for a town board meeting Oct. 5 included a pair of items that promised to reinforce the two main themes of the landfill’s election campaign: taxes and community giving.

A presentation by Kent Gartner on a report by the consulting firm CGR Inc. concluded that “taxes on the median-valued home in Seneca Falls would rise nearly $800 per year, 74 percent, in the absence of resources provided by SMI.”

Churchill noted that SMI had paid for the study and pointed to other economic studies that forecast far more modest increases. He said the board was working to get the tax increase for the 2022 town budget as close to zero as possible.

A second scheduled item for the Oct. 5 meeting was a resolution concerning SMI’s intention to donate a police car and a scoreboard to the town.

When Ferrara realized the item had been pulled from the agenda at the last minute, he made a motion to reinstate it and then asked for a second. The three Democrats and Republican Dawn Dyson were all silent, so the resolution died.

Lutz said he and others had tried to convince board members and town officials to deny SMI the chance to exploit the symbolism of the gifts so close to an important election.

In turn, Republicans have charged that Democrats Avery, DeLelys and Churchill play their own pre-election politics by bending over backwards to try to minimize the tax increase that will be necessary in the town’s 2022 budget.

Thomas H. Fox, Seneca County Republican Committee Chair, blasted the three for scratching $200,000 from the proposed budget for a town-wide property reevaluation that they had all voted for in July.

“The reevaluation was highly recommended by the Town’s Assessor,” Fox wrote in a recent letter to FingerLakes1. “The $200,000 project would result in millions of dollars in increased tax revenue for the town, school district and county, but in an equitable way! Their answer, let’s do it next year!

“I guess there is no election next year.”

Punching back at Republican offensives, Avery and DeLelys sent out a mailer that showed two pictures of Laskoski with SMI manager Black and a third with Laskoski, Black and Sinicropi sitting together at an Historical Society annual dinner in September.

One picture appeared to show Black and Laskoski conferring at a town board meeting.

Laskoski expressed outrage at the mailing in a 1,500-word capital-letter-laden posting on her personal Facebook page.

“BULLIES WANT TO BULLY THEIR WAY TO ELECTION,” she wrote. “Well, guess what….I AM NOT ONE TO BACK DOWN. This mailer only motivates me further to dismantle the ‘good old boys’ team and finally get in office and GET TO WORK FOR ALL ISSUES…Think about this…..why are they solely focused on the landfill?”

For Avery, the future of the landfill is simply the dominant issue in Tuesday’s election.

“Seneca Falls must plan for a future that doesn’t rely on landfill revenue,” he wrote in a recent newspaper column. “We must reject the idea that being the garbage dump for the Northeast is fine, as long as we’re paid enough to look the other way.”

Bonafiglia and his daughter, Daniele Bonafiglia-Wirth, CFO of BonaDent, contributed $1,000 and $500, respectively, to Avery’s election campaign committee.