Proposed cuts to the New York City Sanitation Department budget have prompted a reckoning among city council members and composting groups as they search for ways to keep the city’s longstanding community composting program alive.
Council member Lincoln Restler, a co-chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus whose district is in Brooklyn, said during a Brooklyn Solid Waste Advisory Board meeting on Monday that the cuts proposed by Mayor Eric Adams’ administration are “essentially unilaterally” in the mayor’s control. He decried the plan, even as he vowed support for an eventual reinstatement of the program via the next budgeting process that involves the council.
“This is a very small amount of money [needed for the program] and it's something that there's deep and broad support for,” Restler said. “I'm optimistic that we will be able to restore funding.”
Adams’ office first released details on the cuts on Nov. 16. The plan required city agencies to cut the overall budget by 5%, and DSNY’s proposal amounted to a nearly $32 million cut. Eliminating the community composting program nets the agency $3 million in fiscal year 2024, which Restler said was a small sum compared to the agency’s $1.82 billion overall budget.
A possible restoration of the program would come after many workers have been laid off from their composting jobs. On Wednesday, the GrowNYC Workers Collective, affiliated with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, held a rally and press conference outside city hall opposing the cuts. There, they said that management of the composting nonprofit had informed them that layoffs for more than 50 GrowNYC workers would happen on Dec. 17.
“Maybe not everyone will be able to get back. It would be really awful if we all had to just be unemployed or find something else for the next six months, but we’ll keep fighting,” said Lena Frey, a compost coordinator with GrowNYC.
The rally featured speeches from composting leaders and more than a dozen city council members, many of whom lambasted Adams for the cuts while vowing to fight for the restoration of funding.
“This mayor is anti worker and is anti climate forward solutions,” Councilmember Shahana Hanif said. “It is unacceptable, it is a damn shame, and what we are doing this afternoon shows that our power is stronger than this mayor’s austerity budgets.”
Questions remain about how difficult shutting down community composting sites would make a potential return from an operational standpoint, but GrowNYC workers said eliminating farmers market collection points would lead to a loss of trust from residents. Courtney Scheffler, a compost coordinator who works at the Parkchester Greenmarket in the Bronx, said she and other GrowNYC workers have worked to convince residents they were back for good after pandemic budget cuts closed their food scrap drop-off site for more than a year.
“People did not believe we were here to stay and we had to prove to people we were reliable,” Scheffler said.
During the pandemic, she said some residents who were committed to dropping off scraps took them to Union Square in Manhattan when their drop-off site was closed. Others dumped them out in the park nearby in protest of the temporary closure.
“There was a misconception that people in the Bronx did not want or need this service… and that wasn’t true,” Scheffler said.
Restler also noted Monday that some of the program partners use equipment provided by DSNY at their facilities, leading some Solid Waste Advisory Board members to urge that the equipment be stored somewhere from which it can be retrieved later.
DSNY Press Secretary Vincent Gragnani confirmed that “Some DSNY equipment is used at community composting sites, and we are working on ramp down plans,” in an emailed statement.
The council plans to hold a meeting on the mayor’s proposed budget cuts on Monday. Restler said that while the mayor doesn’t need council approval for the November cuts, Adams will have to return to the council in January or February for permission to redirect funds saved as a result. He predicted that the earliest funding could be returned to the program would be June.
In the meantime, Restler said he was open to the idea of finding philanthropic partners to bridge the gap created by the cuts. He also said that pressure on DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch could make an impact.
“I think that she has been one of the most effective advocates internally in this administration in getting what she wants,” Restler said. “If she feels pressure and heat to solve for this, I think that would ultimately be helpful.”