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East End towns eyeing changes to leaf pickup

April is nearly here, and Southampton's fall leaf pickup is almost finished - just in time for the spring leaf pickup to begin.

Southampton Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor is convinced that it's time to stop the way the town does its leaf collection.

Unlike most other towns on Long Island, Southampton's residents don't have to bag leaves and set them at the edge of their property. Instead, the town vacuums up the leaves from the roadside.

The work takes longer than leaf bag collection, Gregor said, requiring 20 to 30 of his workers for nearly six months - time he said they could be filling pot holes or clearing out storm drains.

The workers also spend time making repairs to the big vacuum pumps, which get damaged by rocks, bricks and abandoned toys in the piles of leaves.

The practice of vacuuming up leaves began decades ago, after state environmental regulations made it illegal for homeowners to burn leaves. The rural East End towns found it just as easy to use a vacuum truck as to have crews deal with bags.

But, as budgets tighten and costs mount, the expense - about $1.3 million a year in Southampton - is under scrutiny.

Last week, Gregor held two community forums in Southampton that drew close to 200 people. None were happy about the loss of the leaf-vacuum service, but his proposal to give away 25 biodegradable leaf bags to each homeowner did get support.

In East Hampton, officials say that 2010 will be the last year for the vacuuming service, which costs about $600,000 a year.

And in Riverhead, officials are beginning to look at changing their system as well, said Highway Superintendent George Woodson, who estimated he spends $325,000 to $400,000 a year on leaf collection. Currently about half the town sets out bagged leaves; in the other half, leaves are vacuumed up.

Woodson said he could use about half the expense for other purposes if everyone bagged leaves. "That's a lot of paving," he said.

In Southampton, Gregor said he is most bothered by the $354,000 his department spent last year to pay the town's waste management department to accept the 50,000 cubic yards of leaves.

"That's the same they charge any other landscaper," he said.

Neither Riverhead nor East Hampton highway departments pay other town agencies to dispose of leaves.

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