The future of La Crosse’s leaf collection program is uncertain as costs rise and resources dwindle; however, it will proceed this fall after a discussion Monday by the Board of Public Works.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat brought together city staff from four different departments to try and find a solution, saying if the city is going to pick up leaves in the fall, then it needs to do it right.
“It boils down to, from the city’s perspective, are we going to provide this service or not?” Kabat said. “I don’t want to go through another two seasons like we have the last two, where we’ve not performed that service the way it should be.”
In 2017 and 2018, the city began collecting leaves Oct. 2 and continued until snow made it impossible. La Crosse spent $223,000 in 2017 and $276,000 in 2018 gathering 792 and 670 loads of leaves, respectively. That cost has more than doubled since 2005, when the city spent $98,974 to collect 547 loads of leaves.
Not only has the city’s Street Department heard from residents unhappy with the service — it received 222 phone calls about leaf pickup last fall — but council members like Phillip Ostrem also have heard from their constituents. Something needs to be done, said Ostrem, who is also a member of the board.
“We need to fix our pick-up plan so people can either count on it or let it go entirely, but it’s too late to let it go for this year,” Ostrem said.
Leaders from the Street, Utility and Parks and Recreation departments, as well as the Municipal Transit Utility, joined the board Monday morning to come up with a plan to pick up leaves in October.
Initial plans call for eight crews to begin the pick-up in mid-October and continue for six weeks using drivers and other staff members from several city departments on a rotating schedule and hiring some additional seasonal employees to fill in the gaps.
The board will discuss whether utility employees will join them next month when it has a better idea of what the impact would be if those employees are diverted from their typical fall activities of cleaning and inspecting sanitary sewer infrastructure and storm water catch basins.
Finding the seasonal employees to do the raking and vacuuming up of the leaves will be a challenge, however, say city staffers. While they hire extra help, workers generally don’t last long on leaf collection. They work for a few days and then stop showing up, according to city staff.
Kabat said he would work on figuring out how to fund the additional seasonal employees.
The board also discussed hiring contractors, but the funding isn’t in the city’s 2019 budget, and it would be difficult to find a company both capable and willing to take on the job.
While the city is gathering leaves in 2019, city planner Jason Gilman suggested it gather some data as well. He said it would help city officials make some difficult decisions if they knew who was taking advantage of the program and whether there were ways to encourage them to try out other options, like composting or mulching, or taking their leaves to the free drop-off points located throughout the city.
“I wonder how much we’re looking at the data because it seems like a service that is just sort of a given every year. But times are changing, and we’ve got to look at that stuff closer,” Gilman said.
The city has collected leaves for years, largely to keep them out of the street, where they flow into storm drains and block the sewers. If it did eliminate the service, city staff would still need to sweep streets to keep those clean, and the city would need an enforcement plan for people who rake their leaves into the street illegally.
“Obviously this is pretty dicey because the residents of La Crosse have become accustomed to this service and there’s going to be a pushback from the city residents if we go forward in the future and start cutting this service,” said council member David Marshall.
However, he doesn’t think the leaf collection is sustainable when compared to the city’s other priorities and limited resources.
“It’s unfortunate because there are a number of people in our city who would not be able to do their own leaf pick-up,” he said. And while he acknowledged the city was unable to force them, Marshall said people would have to step-up and help their neighbors.
Council member Barb Janssen agreed, saying the city needed to look at other options and priorities, and possibly look at sponsoring a Neighbors Day type event in the fall to help those who cannot get rid of their own leaves.