Town Unaware STEPS Jobs Would Be Lost By Decision

Published 3:50 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012

FARMVILLE – During a discussion on Wednesday with STEPS executive director, Sharon Harrup, Town officials said they never would have considered sending Farmville's cardboard to another processor had they known it would cost any jobs at STEPS.

No action was taken during Town Council's April work session but Town Council appears poised to vote next week to resume taking cardboard to STEPS, after a 10-day hiatus, and paying the organization to process it for recycling, including a fee increase.

Ms. Harrup advised Town Council that a town resident has offered to pay the processing costs for the Town so Farmville could have free cardboard recycling at STEPS, but based on comments made by officials on Wednesday it is unlikely the Town would feel comfortable having a private citizen pay its recycling fees.

Email newsletter signup

In March, Town Council voted to accept Dickie Cralle's offer of free cardboard recycling with his equipment at Green Front, rather than continue to pay STEPS each month.

The move would have saved the Town an estimated $180 per month, but officials did not know then-nor did Cralle-that it would cost two disabled workers their jobs at STEPS until they read about it in the paper, a front page story in The Herald, and a letter to the editor in The Herald and several other area newspapers.

“As a result of the loss of this volume of cardboard, two of our employees with disabilities at the recycling center will lose their jobs,” Ms. Harrup wrote in the letter regarding Town Council's March decision.

In that March Town Council meeting Spates told council members that he had spoken with Ms. Harrup, telling her that the Town might accept the offer of free cardboard recycling, while continuing to use STEPS to recycle other materials, such as plastics. And, Spates said, “she understands. She said that in these economic times you have to look at everything.”

Town officials made it clear during the work session discussion this week that they would not have voted to take the cardboard away from STEPS had they known the consequences to the not-for-profit organization.

“When I presented the information to council about the cardboard recycling,” Spates said, “…I told ya'll that one of my main concerns was we did not want to do anything that would jeopardize STEPS. We have always participated with STEPS and we do things with STEPS to make sure that we continue to employee the people at STEPS. I admire the job they do. And I don't think anything came up in the discussion (with Ms. Harrup)-and I'm not trying to cover up for myself-but the question was never brought up about the end product that when Sharon, we pay her that $180 a month, she turns around and sells that cardboard to another third party and she's making a lot more money off of that product, which (allows) you to employ the people at STEPS. That was never brought up so that's why I never said anything to you (Town Council). Sharon never said it to me. If that had been explained to me it would have been a dead issue. The $180 means nothing.”

Town officials said they were also unaware of the extent of the financial impact on STEPS beyond those two jobs and how the selling of cardboard is not dissimilar to a commodities market that can yield significant sales income, income STEPS uses to hire other disabled workers and pay for other costs associated with operation of the recycling center.

Vice-mayor Armstead D. Reid said, “Like you said, all that information wasn't brought up. We didn't know anything about the employees, the jobs or anything.”

Council member David E. Whitus offered, “I don't think any of us-I can only speak for myself-I don't think any of us had any intentions at all of hurting STEPS or doing anything derogatory to STEPS. I think the Town, in the past, has always been very supportive of STEPS and the picture in the paper (The Farmville Herald) shows us building a loading dock today.”

Whitus said, “The most disappointing thing in all of this to me was the letter to the editor that appeared in multiple newspapers. I was disappointed. Being on Town Council and being very proud of Farmville I am very protective of Farmville and very protective of our image…That was the most disappointing part to me, was to see the letter spread amongst all these papers and the negativity that it brings. I understand the role you're in.”

When her opportunity came to speak, Ms. Harrup said, “we have never doubted the commitment that you as Town Council and the town citizens have in the job we do for people with disabilities out at STEPS. The working relationship has been the envy of some of our partner organizations across the state.”

And she recalled when the Town and STEPS won the Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence because the Town was partnering with a not-for-profit which provides jobs for people with disabilities.

Ms. Harrup also reminded Town Council that her “role at STEPS is to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities and our focus is employment…

“The letter to the editor, in all honesty, was predicated on the fact that my board of directors felt like the situation needed to be made public. I do work for a board of directors….

“Do I regret in hindsight sending the letter to the editor to multiple newspapers? From your position I can see why that was hurtful….I'm very proud to be based in Farmville. Our base of support here has been broad,” Ms. Harrup said. “The information that I shared in the letter was factual. In hindsight I probably could have accomplished what we needed to accomplish by just simply putting it in The Farmville Herald. In all honesty I'll own that mistake. And I regret that it caused angst for any of you around the table…”

Town Council members also told Ms. Harrup that they had received numerous phone calls and emails, with STEPS' CEO saying she wished people had called her, instead.

“The one call that we did receive was from a citizen of the town that volunteered to pay the processing fee that would normally have been charged to the Town for processing the cardboard,” she relayed, “if the Town Council would agree to send the cardboard back to STEPS…

“I could offer you free cardboard recycling because of the private citizen that would be willing to make that level of commitment to STEPS. I'm here to bring that to you today to ask that you reconsider that decision,” Ms. Harrup told Town Council, before adding, “whatever you decide we will respect you, we will continue to work hard for you, serving the people with disabilities.”

Asking for questions, she was asked by Vice-Mayor Reid why a meeting wasn't set up with the STEPS board and Town Council to discuss the issue “before all this hit the outside.”

Answering, Ms. Harrup said, “in hindsight, Mr. Reid, that probably would have been a more appropriate way to handle it. All I can do at this point is say I am sorry it was handled the way it was handled. I will take responsibility for that because I am the agent of record for that company…”

She then reiterated two points about the letter to the editor.

“The information was factual and I stand by the letter that was submitted to the letter to the editor,” Ms. Harrup said, “but I do admit it should not have been mass disbursed and I will own that and sincerely apologize for any embarrassment that may have caused.”

Town Council member Dr. Edward I. Gordon said he was most disturbed by what he saw as a lack of information to the Town from STEPS regarding the impact of a decision to send the cardboard for processing by someone else.

“What bothers me is that STEPS was coming to Farmville for a reason and did not give us the information we needed to make a good decision…There's a tremendous deficit of information that reached this Town Council,” he said, “and had we had that information that's what you base your decision on…I think that when an organization, whether it be yours or anybody else's, requests something of Town Council that it behooves that organization to tell us what's going on…”

Dr. Gordon described using the letter to the editor to reveal the Town's decision would result in two job losses at STEPS as “bypassing us, is what happened, and creating ill-will and blasting us…”

And he reiterated, “we really need to know the facts, and we didn't get 'em, we didn't get 'em…So what we had before us (at the March meeting) was: this will cost us something; this will cost us nothing, okay? And I would still choose, with that little information, nothing. Now, sure a lot more has come to light…so, sure, my mind has changed around, as I'm sure many others have…

“If you want to make an intelligent decision,” he repeated, “you've got to have things in front of you and we were not given that information…If you want us to know something, please explain it. If you don't explain it we're going to go on the facts we have.”

Spates made certain to explain “I want to make sure that everybody understands that Dickie Cralle had nothing to do with this whole process…Dickie is real big in recycling. He's bought a lot of equipment on his own to do recycling…He's really concerned about the environment…”

And then the town manager reiterated that “had I known it was going to cost jobs to STEPS in the end, I would have never even brought it to council. Council never would have heard it…

“It's an unfortunate thing the way everything turned out. I think on the information that we were given,” Spates said, “we did exactly right. But now in light of the information that we got now I think it's something…

“We need to reconsider,” council member Sally Thompson said of the March vote to stop sending the cardboard to STEPS.

Which prompted Dr. Gordon to say that Town Council had yet to consider the decision with all of the facts known so it could not reconsider something it had not considered before.

“I think we need to consider it. I don't think we've ever heard it before,” he observed.

Town officials made it clear, too, that they appreciate the positive impact STEPS has on Farmville, but also the area.

“We are very well aware of the good job that STEPS does in the community and we're very appreciative of all thing things you do,” Ms. Thompson told Ms. Harrup.

“I'm sorry,” Ms. Harrup said before leaving Town Council's work session, “that I did not provide all the information that you felt like you needed.”