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Residents urge town to reinstate 'dump picking'

Facility employees counseled on behavior

November 03, 2010
MEREDITH — With the issue of employee behavior seemingly behind them, town officials are now working to find middle ground between allowing picking at the solid waste facility and protecting the town from liability.

During the Sept. 20 Board of Selectmen meeting several residents aired complaints about rude treatment by employees as well as protest over the "no picking" rule instituted at the facility due to liability issues.

On Monday, Town Manager Phil Warren shared a memo written to the board regarding the issues and how they can be addressed.

Warren said employees involved in any issues were "counseled as a matter of corrective action."

Overall Warren said there has been mixed reports on employee courtesy and conduct, and that many issues arose when employees were put in a role of ensuring compliance, an issue addressed by establishing a chain of response where an employee will report to a supervisor with responsibility going up the line.

The town has also purchased and is in the process of installing a video monitoring system to watch areas susceptible to theft 24 hours a day.

Warren said while he is "acutely aware" of the history of socializing at the facility, the facility is municipal property with an intended purpose and is not meant to be a gathering place. As an example, Warren said people would not have lunch in the apparatus bay of the Fire Station or congregate in the lobby of the Police Station. Signage regarding operational guidelines will be put up.

"It has been reinforced with staff that deficiencies in customer service will not be tolerated," Warren read in his memo. "All complaints have been investigated and retained as a matter of record."

Warren also said the practice of picking by employees is forbidden and employees have been reminded of that policy. Warren said he made two unannounced visits to the facility and found no stored items.

Picking directly from the pile is not allowed and Warren said many communities have curtailed the practice. Residents can ask employees to retrieve items for them.

Warren worked with resident Frank Marino and Public Works Director Mike Faller on a potential proposal. Marino's proposal called for the establishment of a "metal store" where useable items are held aside in a separate area where people can look over them and take items they want. Items that have been in the metal store for too long can be thrown out.

The proposal also said a price will be set for the removal of goods according to weight. Warren said his office proposed purchasing a scale and having a volunteer weigh the items to determine their price.

Warren said the town has been in communication with Northeast Recovery Resource Association, which conducted an analysis to determine the cost effectiveness of the current system versus single stream recycling. The analysis concluded that single stream recycling would not save the town money and a municipality like Concord would need 70,000 tons of recyclables a year under single-stream to break even.

Marino, however, said he read a letter from Faller recommending that picking not be allowed and said he wondered if there was a connection between this sentiment and recommendations from the NRRA and Local Government Center, the town's insurer, advising against the town allowing the practice.

Marino said he did research that afternoon on municipalities in New Hampshire that allow picking and what their policies are, also finding towns in Massachusetts and Maine that allow the practice. He read the regulations of several New Hampshire towns, some requiring signing a waiver and signage saying the town is not liable for injuries. Marino said the Public Works Superintendent of Brewster, Mass., said the town's insurance company recommended they have signs and have residents sign waivers.

In the event of liability, Marino said the town would win a lawsuit under Sovereign Immunity.

Faller he understands why people would want items out of the pile, and residents can ask an employee to get items for them.

"I do have concerns with the proposal that's before us," Faller said. "I think there's some good parts but I have concerns. When you do have people walking around and picking things from the pile it becomes a liability."

Faller said he is willing to do whatever the town requests, but the issue of liability needed to be discussed.

As for the letter from LGC, "I was doing what I was asked to do and getting something in writing that was their opinion," Faller said.

Warren and some selectmen said while the town would likely win a case under Sovereign Immunity, defending against a lawsuit would be costly and the town was already trying hard to save money.

Marino said a scale would not be needed for the plan and Warren said taking the scale out of the equation would be much easier.

Most residents strongly supported the practice of picking, saying it was economical as well as a New Hampshire tradition. Several said the town could be liable if anyone is injured on any town property.

Tim Golden said he has found everything from photovoltaic panels to a Craftsman saw at the facility and repaired them for his own use.

"It's environmentally sound, we get to reuse things, we get to be creative with things we find at the dump," Golden said.

Golden also refuted the comparison between the transfer station and the Police and Fire Station.

"We're all supposed to go to the dump and dump our stuff," Golden said. "That comparison is so thin it doesn't carry any credibility."

Resident Dave Bennett supported the practice of picking.

"We call it junk but it's valuable pieces to someone who doesn't have the money to buy something new," he said. "I think it should be done but it should be done with some organization and respect to the people that are up there."

Joan Ekstrom said she has not bought a new lawn chair in 40 years because she gets metal chairs from the station and buys webbing to complete them. Ekstrom said people should take responsibility for their own actions and said she would sign a waiver.

"It's my right and it's my freedom," Ekstrom said. "I'm sick to death of people trying to take all this stuff away from us."

Richard Seiss said when he was child there was a transfer station in the Bronx that was like a playground to local kids, two of whom died there after wandering in. He said he recently went to the Meredith facility and saw a woman leaning into a dumpster to take out wood. He also recalled a story out of Alton where a woman sued the town after getting hurt while picking.

"If you're going to have any kind of picking, you're really going to have to fine tune it so people aren't running around the facility," Seiss said.

Most residents also described the staff at the facility as courteous and friendly, recalling times when employees helped them take newspapers and cardboard boxes out of their cars.

"They work hard under extreme heat and cold conditions and I think we should give them their due," said Mike Colonna. "I think we need to let up a little on criticizing the town employees."

Stephen Hoedecker said he got a compressor for $1 after politely asking one of the employees to get it for him.

Golden, however said employees can be cold to pickers. Marino said while asking for items works with many people, there are people who do have personality conflicts with employees.

"I've had them hide from me," Marino said, saying he has stood for nearly half an hour waiting for an employee and will end up leaving.

Members of the Board of Selectmen said the town can work to reach a compromise on the issues, allowing some degree of picking while protecting against liability. Selectman Nate Torr said the central issues are receiving an opinion from the insurance company on going forward, finding middle ground on the issue, and identifying the limitations.

Warren said he would examine the issue and report back at the Nov. 15 Board meeting.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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