Won’t Take It Anymore: At Long Last, Official Refuses to Pick Up the Trash from Cans on State Property

Years ago, I bought a house in Bridgehampton along Montauk Highway. There was a front lawn on my property that ended at a white picket fence. On the other side of the fence was a grassy shoulder of the road owned by the state (Montauk Highway is a state highway). My job was to mow the lawn on my side of the fence. But also, I soon learned, it was my job to mow the lawn on the grassy shoulder of the road on the other side of the fence.

They owned the property. If my fence was six inches onto the state property, which surveyors determined it was, I had to move the fence back. If the sign saying DAN’S PAPERS (this building was the office for Dan’s Papers) had one leg sticking onto the state property, I had to move it off. I did all that. But I still had to mow the lawn out there on the strip of land owned by the state.

To say this rankled me enough to write a story about it for the paper would not be true. On a scale of 10, with eight being the level of rankleness that would lead me to write a story, this came in at seven. It just annoyed the hell out of me. So I mowed.

The same thing turned out to be true later on when I bought a house on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton. This is a county road. I pay county taxes. But for the same reason, I mow the county parcel, too.

Then, just before this past Christmas, I got a phone call from a concerned citizen in Hampton Bays. He told me that there had been about a dozen garbage cans in the business district of his town, but they were now gone. They had been gone, he said, for nearly a month. He thought this might be a story.

I didn’t put two and two together at that time, that this might be something to do with Main Street in Hampton Bays being a state road. What I did instead was tell him I thought it might have to do with Superstorm Sandy. Three days before Superstorm Sandy, sitting outside of Starbucks in East Hampton, I had watched as the Village Highway Department there removed all the trashcans on Main Street so they wouldn’t get blown around. Maybe the powers that be in Hampton Bays had just forgotten to put theirs back.

Five days later he called me back. Yes, it had been the Southampton Town Highway Department that had removed the cans from the state property. And they weren’t putting them back. This was a deliberate decision.

Here’s what I have to say. Alex Gregor, Superintendent of Highways: You are my hero. Main Street Hampton Bays is a state road. The state won’t pick up the garbage. And so now neither will you. Alex Gregor, before Superstorm Sandy, you had some of the 60 men from your highway department crew pick up the metal trashcans on the sides of the road owned by the State of New York in downtown Hampton Bays and you brought them to the highway barn for the town, and then, while the cans were there, thought—why the hell did I just do that? Gregor pays taxes to the state, too. He, as a Southampton Town employee, has been having his crew pick up the state’s garbage for years. And it just occurred to him. Let the state put out the garbage cans. Let the state bring in the trucks to clean up on the sides of the road of their property. He wasn’t going to do it anymore.

To me, Alex Gregor, who just wouldn’t take it any more, is the Patrick Henry of Eastern Long Island. He is our own one man Boston Tea Party, our own Nathan Hale, our own Thomas Jefferson. Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death. And I’m with him all the way.

Not putting the garbage cans back on Main Street, of course, created quite a furor. People wanted a place to throw their garbage.

I spoke to Alex Gregor last Friday. Gregor said that yes, it’s true—he and his crew have been picking up the trash in the downtowns of all the unincorporated hamlets in Southampton Town. He told me that he has been doing this in the other downtowns, in East Quogue, Bridgehampton, Water Mill, Flanders and Westhampton and he could stop picking up the cans there, too. They’re all on state property, not on Town property. (In the incorporated villages in this area—in Quogue, Southampton and Westhampton Beach—their local village highway departments have been doing the job).

“Why won’t the state clean it up?” I asked.

“Because we’re doing it. Why should they do it when we’ve always done it! It’s got to stop!”

“And property owners have to do it too!!” I chimed in. “We’re not going to take it anymore, either!!”

I pumped my fist in the air. But he couldn’t see me do that. We were on the phone.

Of course, with all the complaints coming to Town Hall Southampton, the Town Supervisor and others insisted that the cans be brought back. But, as everybody knows, the head of the Town Highway Department is an elected official, elected by all us taxpayers. Southampton Town Supervisor Throne-Holst could tell him to do this. But if he didn’t do it she couldn’t make him. These cans were not on Town property.

“I got an opinion from the State Comptroller’s office,” Gregor told me.

“So they’re going to pick up their garbage?”

“No. They told me that for me to have my men pick up all the garbage in the trashcans on state property, the money should come from the General Fund of the town. Not the Highway Department funds. I don’t have enough funds to be doing somebody else’s job. They’ve cut me to the bone.”

“Have you put the cans back?”

“Yes.”

“So who is picking up the garbage?”

“I think they want the Parks Department to do it. Or one of the other departments is doing it. But this department is not doing it.”

Gregor then went into this elaborate explanation, not having to do with freedom
and good manners and cleaning up after yourself etc. etc., but about money in
his department.

“I used to have 96 employees,” he said. “We could do this then. Now, with the cuts, I have 60. We could afford it before. Not any more. If they want us to do this, this department needs to be paid from funding going to other departments.”

That, I thought, is a long way from “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” But it’s a good point. I think.

So now the garbage is in its containers and it’s being picked up. As for the state, well, you can bang on the door all you want but you’re not going to get anywhere, it seems.

And so it goes.

The Feds are in Washington, the State is in Albany, the County is in Riverhead and the Town is in Southampton. Maybe Hampton Bays should incorporate, and become a Village?

Actually, that’s exactly what they are considering doing. At a meeting this past Monday night, more than 100 residents of Hampton Bays showed up for a discussion about making Hampton Bays into the Incorporated Village of Hampton Bays.

Then you’ll be able to complain about things just a few footsteps away.

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