By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO September 9, 2005 Robert Meyer, the new commissioner of the Sullivan County Department of Public Works (DPW), will face no easy task as he retakes the helm of a department battered by a corruption scandal focusing on its suspended leadership.
He will also deal with one very complex and controversial subject the Sullivan County Landfill.
All this while overseeing approximately 250 employees who also fix the countys roads, build its bridges, maintain its infrastructure, and do a bit of everything in between.
Meyer returned to the department in April at the request of former County Manager Dan Briggs as a consultant following the unexpected retirement of former DPW Commissioner Peter Lilholt and the suspensions of Deputy Commissioner Phil Nicoletti and Director of Parks, Recreation and Beautification Richard Caraluzzo.
That same month, DPW Chief Fiscal Administrative Officer Amy Winters was put on paid leave. The actions were related to an investigation into break-ins by certain employees into the countys personnel office, the removal of confidential documents, and the alleged theft of county property, among other charges.
The county expects Meyer to be a breath of fresh air, although he once before served as commissioner of the department from 1993-1994.
A Narrowsburg resident, Meyer began his dealings with the county in 1980 as a civil engineer, working at the airport and eventually becoming an engineering supervisor.
After leaving the county about ten years ago, he went to work for Orange County as the commissioner for environmental facilities and services for five years. He then left to work in the private sector as an engineering consultant, operating his business out of Monticello.
Meyer also penned the Democrats On the Internet column for several years, giving it up last month to accept the DPW position.
In an interview with the local press on Wednesday, Meyer said he would work to improve the departments checks and balances for cataloging purchases and keeping records of equipment use. He said he is working with the in-house and outside auditors, as well as law enforcement agencies, to develop the best protocol.
Meyer spent most of the interview discussing the countys landfill, which is considered by nearby residents to be a cancer and leukemia risk. The county is preparing its large Phase 2 expansion, which would bring the trash center within 250 feet of a 60-home community, as well as at least one other home/day care center.
Local residents have complained for years about the perceived negative health consequences associated with the gases being released from the site into the air and the ground. The expansion of the landfill will nearly double its size and triple the amount of garbage accepted there.
However, Meyer is not in control of the policy decisions the county will make regarding the future of the landfill. A study by Stephen Lynch, a consultant hired by the county, is expected within a month that will advise the county on its solid waste future.
Meyer did say that the construction of Cell 6 is winding down. The county won approval for that expansion of the landfill last winter, after the anti-landfill group SPECS dropped its objections following a months-long battle.
He conceded that we have had on occasion problems with odors. There is an odor control hotline, though, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation monitors the landfill nearly every day. The DEC has issued violations to the landfill on a regular basis for the last few years.
The countys application for permits to operate the landfill would allow it to accept up to 200,000 tons a year, as it did when it imported waste. The county eliminated its importation contracts last year and is on pace currently to take in 80,000 tons a year. Cell 6, which should be operational by 2006, is expected to last the county at least two years.
At the interview, Meyer was joined by John Kehlenbeck, the commissioner of Solid Waste Management. Together, they said the county would need to improve its transfer stations to compact waste if the legislature decided, or was forced, to export its garbage. The county operates transfer stations in Ferndale, the Town of Mamakating, the Town of Highland and the Town of Rockland. In addition, there are town transfer stations located in Grahamsville and Bethel. There is also a major transfer station in the Town of Cochecton.
Neither could answer as to whether exporting garbage would be more cost-efficient than operating a landfill. When Meyer worked in Orange County, all of the waste was transported to Pennsylvania.
Another DPW project sure to keep Meyer busy in the future is the new county jail. A committee is currently searching sites in the county suitable for the jail. The jail has been filled close to capacity at times and has been criticized for its failing infrastructure which can create extremely cold and hot conditions inside.
Sullivan County Sheriff Dan Hogue, who is retiring at the end of this year, has been calling for a new jail for several years.
Another challenge for the new commissioner will be the hiring of minorities. That subject came up at last weeks Public Works Committee meeting through county legislator Ron Hiatt. Hiatt asked that Meyer return to the committee next month and address the matter. African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 20 percent of the countys population yet represent a small fraction within the department.
Meyer said he is working to create a personal relationship with the employees of his department. He wants an open atmosphere, where workers can question him about promotions and policy.
He has been regularly visiting the departments work sites throughout the county, especially since he officially took the mantle of commissioner full-time on August 1.