A very fishy issue of sanitation

The garbage workers’ strike, which created mountains of refuse around the city, is over. But the questions remain: How did we get to that point? And where do we go from here?

GARBAGE PILES UP on Agrippas Street just outside the Mahaneh Yehuda Market in the capital yesterday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GARBAGE PILES UP on Agrippas Street just outside the Mahaneh Yehuda Market in the capital yesterday.
This past Monday morning, January 4, a neighbor on my street was standing in the cold near the garbage bin, explaining to residents that they should not throw out their trash but instead keep it, as much as possible, inside their homes.
This was to preserve what little room remained in the already overflowing bin, she explained with a smile. “We have to make some effort so that we’re not all swamped in garbage, until the municipality ends this strike.”
Quite a few residents were not aware of the imminent strike of the cleaners and garbage collectors, which was announced just before the expected storm of last week, and discovered it only at the beginning of this week, when they found that the expected snow didn’t show up, but the garbage was everywhere.
In the city center, from the start, the situation was already almost unbearable.
It was “not far off from the bad old days of [mayor Ehud Olmert],” a veteran writer for the local Hebrew press commented. The wind and the rain melted the litter, the plastic bags and the leftovers from meals past – pizza, sandwiches and beer and soft-drink cans – all whirling on the sidewalks.
Thanks to the cold, the residents of Jerusalem and the rare visitors and tourists were at least spared the stink of abandoned litter on the streets and the overflow from the public trash cans, which added to the gloomy atmosphere of a city under attack – via knives.
Jerusalem’s cleaning services have been a major issue for years. During Olmert’s tenure the level of dirt on the capital’s streets, including city center tourist areas, reached its peak.
Olmert used to answer the complaints about the lack of cleanliness by first rejecting them: “The city is not dirty,” he answered at a city council meeting, in response to former city councilman Pepe Alalu (Meretz), accusing him and his party of creating spin around the issue.
In another case, Olmert explained that “as long as the residents keep on soiling their surroundings, the city will remain dirty, no matter how many efforts will be invested to clean it.”
Uri Lupolianski, who took over in 2003, admitted that the capital needed a more serious cleaning operation, adding about 100 cleaners and a special budget of NIS 88 million for that purpose, but Jerusalem remained dirty, apart from a small improvement in city center.
The first tangible change came with Nir Barkat, who in his first campaign, in 2008, pledged to clean the whole city.
There is no question that there has been a significant improvement since, with the recycling center, the new bins in many neighborhoods (embedded in the ground), the enlargement of the municipality’s sanitation department and the hiring of a private cleaning company for the Old City’s tourist circuit (though not in the area’s Arab neighborhoods).
But it took merely four days of a cleaners’ strike for things to collapse, and the picture was shocking.
THE ONGOING duel between Mayor Barkat and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is adding, week after week, new wounds to the city, and the anything- but-gentlemanly war between the two is causing a lot of damage.
The drama was reaching boiling point when a third character intervened and cooled them off. Avi Nissenkorn, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, managed to bring the parties to a kind of temporary cease-fire and helped obtain NIS 17m. for the salaries of the cleaners fired last week. Another NIS 20m. has been approved by the Treasury to finance security as well as youth and culture programs that Barkat last week announced would have to be frozen.
The NIS 17m. will be enough to recall the dismissed 170 cleaners, since it will cover their salaries for a year.
“These are the most vulnerable workers at the municipality,” a high-ranking official in the municipality’s sanitation department explained earlier this week.
“They are not young anymore, and their salaries are the lowest and they have no alternatives. To fire them is to condemn them to a shameful situation.”
As for the additional NIS 20m., it will enable city hall to continue funding security for educational institutions; some of the welfare, youth and afternoon education programs (through the René Cassin charity); and some cultural programs.
One of the issues that aggravated the situation last week was the mayor’s agreement to add the 170 cleaners to the ranks of city employees (instead of their current status as employees of private companies with much less favorable conditions).
This in itself is a kind of merry-go-round.
Just last year, Barkat obtained a significant victory with an agreement signed with the municipal cleaners’ employee committee, which allowed him to hire a private company to clean the Old City.
“This a good beginning,” said Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman of the funding infusions, “but it solves only a part of the problem, and only for this year.”
Generally speaking, practically all city council members agree with Barkat that this city deserves “special treatment” – in budgets, support from the government and concern about its difficulties.
“We certainly agree with the mayor, but most of us think he is not handling this matter in an appropriate way. As a result, Jerusalem is suffering from this hostility between the two men, which has become a personal issue,” added another councilman.
It is worth noting that most coalition members did not dare to speak openly on this matter, and asked not to be identified.
Even MK Rachel Azaria, until recently deputy mayor and today a member of Kahlon’s Kulanu list, said only that “indeed, Jerusalem deserves and needs special support, but there are ways to work together” – hinting at the repeated campaigns launched by Barkat against the finance minister.
But the fact that city council members avoid speaking publicly about the issue doesn’t mean they are not worried or trying to do something about the situation.
Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir (Yerushalmim) initiated a joint letter from council members (signed by all of them) to Kahlon, requesting an urgent meeting with him (that would include Barkat) to find solutions to the city’s difficult economic situation due to the wave of terrorism.
“It’s not only the war last year and the terrorism,” asserted Nir. “About a third of Jerusalem’s population is under, or very close to, the poverty line. They are therefore legally exempted from paying taxes, which the government does not supplement – an objective reason for the city’s disastrous economic situation, even before the security aspects.”
Following the approval of the NIS 37m., some council members expressed their cautious hope that things would calm down now, but late Monday evening a press release from the mayor announced, “It seems Jerusalem’s challenges and needs are not listed on the list of top priorities of Minister Kahlon, and even worse – the minister is starving the city’s economy and takes the city backward. This is no less than an economic terrorist act.”
Barkat continued in the statement that despite all that, and the painful cuts in services the municipality is forced to implement as a result, he and his professional team are ready to meet Kahlon at any time to find a just solution to the problem.
Judging by the reaction of some Kulanu MKs, this kind of public declaration is exactly what may further raise the tension between the Treasury and the city.
“My guess is that we will finally obtain all the budgets we really need here,” commented a deputy mayor. “But clearly, it will be a long and exhausting repeated battle over each sum, and the finance minister and his team will make us pay the highest price for that campaign against him.
“Surely it will affect the city and the residents,” he concluded, adding that for the moment, he couldn’t foresee a way to calm down the parties involved.
As for cleaning up the capital after the strike, high-ranking officials at Safra Square’s sanitation department initially estimated it would take a week until the city fully recovered. However, at press time it was revealed that there were about 400 tons of garbage scattered about the city requiring collection.
Since last year, the Jerusalem Municipality no longer buries its waste in Abu Dis, instead taking it to the modern recycling center in Atarot. This center is a private enterprise, which has signed a contract with the municipality regulating the daily amount of garbage that can be brought there – and the price settled for it. Strangely enough, nobody thought that there should be a provision in the contract regarding a situation such as the one we saw this past week, for a surplus of trash at the end of a strike. As a result, the trucks delivering the garbage since the end of the strike to Atarot were not allowed to bring more than the usual contractual daily weight – 80 tons per day for the entire city! As a result, garbage is being very slowly evacuated and there is no way – unless some ad-hoc solution (that will probably cost the city’s budget a pretty penny) is found between Atarot and the municipality.
Sources at Safra Square say that this might take some time, and meanwhile, Jerusalem is slowly but surely sinking into tons of dirt.