Feher Rubbish Removal’s abrupt closure Thursday afternoon certainly made a mess of things for a good 24 hours, but the towns that contracted with Onondaga County’s second largest trash hauler had everything ironed out by Friday afternoon.
Feher, a 50-year-old, locally owned company with municipal and private residential trash hauling contracts across Onondaga, Madison, Oneida, Oswego, Cayuga, Cortland, Monroe, Livingston, Wayne, Ontario, Yates, Seneca, Tompkins, Jefferson, Chenango, and Herkimer counties, unexpectedly closed its doors Thursday afternoon, abandoning some trash routes in the towns of Cicero and Salina. In Lysander, Van Buren, Elbridge, Marcellus, Onondaga and Otisco, where residents are responsible for finding their own garbage haulers, many people have found themselves without service — and out the money they already paid for Feher to take care of their trash.
“Feher’s exit from the business came as a surprise to all of us,” said Cicero Supervisor Mark Venesky in a message to residents posted on Facebook. “The town was only notified of this at 2 p.m. Thursday, and we are aggressively working with the county and other vendors to pursue a prompt solution to this unfortunate situation. As it stands today, there will be no trash pickup next week until further notice.”
Cicero held a special board meeting Friday afternoon, where it granted a contract to Syracuse Haulers to take over trash pickup for the town; service was set to resume Monday, May 14.
Salina, too, as already found a new provider. Superior Waste Removal handles the town’s yard waste. Joe Buffa, president of the company, contacted Salina Supervisor Mark Nicotra when he learned of Feher’s closure.
“When he heard about what was going on, he called me and said he could get the manpower together in the interim to help until we figure out what’s going on in the long-term,” Nicotra said.
As of Friday afternoon, Salina’s Thursday and Friday garbage and recycling routes were picked up. The schedule was set to return to normal this week.
So what happened? According to Kristen Lawton, public information officer for the Onondaga County Resource and Recovery Agency (OCRRA), Feher did not pay its April bill to the agency.
“OCRRA doesn’t do curbside pickup,” Lawton explained. “Private trash haulers do.”
Some municipalities contract with those haulers to pick up all of the trash and recyclables for the town and village, building the cost into residents’ taxes. In other areas, private citizens can call and have those same businesses pick up their trash.
“We have a relationship with all of the haulers,” Lawton said. “They are required by law to bring the trash to us. We have a flow control law that says that all trash stays in our county for disposal — it helps keep our system running. Otherwise haulers might bring their trash to the landfills outside of the county.”
Haulers are also encouraged to bring the county’s recycling to OCRRA. While they’re charged for the trash they bring in, OCRRA offers haulers a zero tip fee for recycling.
“It doesn’t cost them anything to bring in their residential recycling, but it would cost them to throw it away,” Lawton said.
Lawton said OCRRA bills the garbage haulers who bring trash to them on a monthly basis. Each contract states that if those bills are not paid in a timely manner, OCRRA can require cash on delivery of the trash.
“With Feher, it came to the point where we needed to enact that part of the contract. And we didn’t follow it to the letter of the contract — we tried to work with them,” Lawton said. “We understand municipal trash hauling is a really important service that needs to happen.”
Feher never paid its April bill, so OCRRA officials tried to work out a payment plan with Feher’s management. While contractually able, OCRRA could have ceased accepting any material from Feher; however, they continued taking residential waste to avoid any health concerns and tried to negotiate a workable arrangement. Still, no payment was forthcoming.
“We tried to create an alternate setup, but we are one of many creditors they had, and not even the largest one,” Lawton said. “We have to protect the full system. We can’t fund the disposal of waste at a cost to everyone else who contributes. That compromises the system for the rest of the county.”
Lawton said that, in addition to Cicero and Salina, the other municipalities that contracted with Feher — the village of Solvay, the town and village of Fabius, the town of LaFayette, the town of Pompey and the village and town of Tully — had all found new service providers. Private residents who use Feher, meanwhile, will have to call to set up a new contract with a new hauler.
“For folks not on municipal trash, it is up to them to make a call to another hauler,” Lawton said. “For the municipal folks, we raised the call as soon as we were concerned, and all were very responsive.”
While the towns and villages that contracted with Feher are not out any money at the moment — they were invoiced monthly — Nicotra said it’s unlikely they’ll be able to find another provider long-term who can provide trash hauling at the same price.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to find a garbage hauler for the cost that Feher was doing it. It will probably be cost more,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, but it will probably increase our costs.”
The question no one seems to be able to answer: What happens to those private customers who have already paid Feher for service?
In the towns of Lysander and Van Buren, residents choose their own trash hauler. Van Buren Town Clerk Lynn Precourt said Van Buren considered going to municipal trash hauling years ago, but residents vocally opposed it.
“There was a very big and vocal response against it,” Precourt said in an email. “The people here felt very strongly they wanted their own choice of hauler, and a surprising number said they took their trash to Ley Creek.”
So residents continued to contract with their own choice of hauler. Some haulers charge month-to-month, some quarterly. Feher, meanwhile, asks that customers pay for a year’s contract up front.
“They took my money on Feb. 22 for one year of service,” said Van Buren resident Angel Grassman in a Facebook message to Eagle Newspapers. “I paid for 56 weeks of service and got nine weeks’ pickup.”
General practice attorney Bill Bartholomae said it’s unlikely the customers will get their money back without filing a suit in small claims court, unless the municipalities file an action or Feher files for bankruptcy, which it had not as of Friday afternoon. If the company files for bankruptcy, residential customers can file paperwork with the court to be listed as a creditor.
Lawton said there had been “blips” in the past several months that indicated there might be trouble on the horizon.
“There were some instances previously where, not that they didn’t pay, but payments were late,” she said. “So we were watching pretty closely.”
Nicotra said even the towns were made aware of problems Feher was facing.
“We got a letter from the Department of Labor a couple of weeks ago asking us to withhold funds due to [problems],” he said. “We got another letter a few days later from the attorneys for some of their creditors saying they had yet to be paid. So we had an inclination there were some serious issues. We were prepared to fill the void.”
Nicotra said he didn’t recall seeing anything on this scale in his entire career in public service.
“This is my 17th year,” he said. “I don’t recall anything of this level happening before.”
Calls to Feher were not returned, and information regarding services appears to have been removed from their website.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.