NASSAU COUNTY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) - The system set up to keep Long Island roads litter-free is not working.
A CBS2 investigation has revealed lax oversight of private sponsorship companies that sell advertising on public roads.
They pitch frequent litter pickup, but Carolyn Gusoff found that is not always happening.
They are part of our landscape: Signs someone's getting paid to clean up what drivers toss out. But if the roads are sponsored, why are they so trashed?
"It's disgusting... it definitely doesn't look like anyone is picking it up," one driver told Gusoff.
"Absolutely not," said another.
"They're supposed to do it every two weeks," Gusoff said.
"Well, they're not doing it," replied another driver.
Every two weeks? That's what Gusoff discovered is how often Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corporation, a private California-based company, tells Nassau County it's picking up litter along its LIE service roads.
The company's pitch to sponsors: They clean up a "minimum of 48-26 times per year."
"That's impossible. I know the litter... and I can tell you that is not being done," AnnMarie Cerrone, president of the Strathmore Village Civic Association, told Gusoff. "I see the same pieces of garbage in the same spot for months at a time."
So did CBS2: For weeks, months, could it be... years? Gusoff found a campaign sign from 2016 on the roadside.
It's no surprise to those who've lived for years steps from the service road and its sponsor signs.
"I have never seen on a regular basis people out here picking up litter, ever," said East Hills resident Jodi Wigginton.
Yet local businesses pay up to $475-$700 every month, every mile. Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corporation collects and keeps the money, but what about the litter?
CBS2 started tracking it, beginning last summer: A conspicuous chunk of trash left for months, steps from a sponsor a highway sign. In September, Gusoff marked it.
On January 10, 2019, Gusoff went to see how much the contractors have come to clean up. She marked multiple pieces of litter with pink duct tape. She returned in February and marked the same litter with yellow spray paint. In mid-March, she marked the same litter with blue duct tape.
By April, the dumping ground had only grown.
Gusoff unearthed a 2003 contract with Nassau County requiring every mile be cleaned every other week, even if it is not actively sponsored. It expired long ago, yet the company still sells segments.
Who's now verifying the litter is regularly picked up?
"Is Nassau County in any way monitoring this program?" Gusoff asked Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.
"We are absolutely reviewing the contract. And you also have to think of where the waste stream starts. It starts with people throwing crap out of their cars," Curran said.
"And you're not annoyed by the fact that the company's getting paid to clean it up?" Gusoff asked.
"Well, I take that very seriously which is why we are going to review this," Curran said.
Segments looked untouched in the very time frame bag counts and biweekly cleaning dates were submitted. Spreadsheets include landmarks, such as Caldor, that closed decades ago.
The company shows spotless roads across the United States. But on Long Island?
Gusoff asked company president Pat Nelson what is going on, repeatedly asking for an interview, which she turned down.
Instead, in emails, Nelson stated they're an ethical organization, will continue to closely monitor the service road and meet their obligations. They refuted CBS2's findings, citing safety and weather challenges, especially in winter.
Adopt A Highway Maintenance Corporation Written Statement:
Our company is very proud of the 30 years we have dedicated to building sponsor programs that fund essential litter removal along the most highly traveled and dangerous roads. Our employees put themselves at risk and do a job that many would not and is too often a thankless one. We have provided the WCBS reporter with an abundance of operational information to educate and inform the investigation as well as rebut what we believe was a pre-determined conclusion by WCBS. Our maintenance history has not been accurately characterized and our contractual duties have not been fairly presented. The investigative conclusion was determined long before we ever had an opportunity to address the reporters assertions and despite the info shared regarding our roadway maintenance history, logistics, health and safety issues, and well stated highway cleaning weather policies. Paramount in all of this is the information we provided WCBS regarding critical health and safety insights that addressed why winter months in the Northeast are far more difficult to schedule and maintain consistently irrespective of whether the highway cleaning is being done by a public agency or a private contractor. Our most fundamental commitment is to create and implement policies and practices that protect the health and safety of our crews and the traveling public. There is no doubt in my mind that this approach has blessed us with a remarkable safety record for the last 30 years. We are most proud of this track record of safety as every employee working the highways has gone home at the end of their day. The one area that we can all agree on is that roadways look awful when they are not maintained and we remain grateful to every sponsor who generously funds the work and equally, we all need to support the work and services provided by roadcrews in Long Island and across the country who strive to safely clean our roads.
Nassau officials concede oversight "may have waned" over the years, in the transition between administrations.
"DPW, tasked with managing this program, went through a series of retirements," said Deputy Nassau County Executive Brian Schneider. "But it is something we are reviewing actively."
"They should be monitoring it, they should be checking it," said East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz.
"Are they?" Gusoff asked.
"No. not at all," he said.
Koblenz gave his opinion of the matter in his village.
"I think it's a fraud," he said. "I have to send my own DPW guys out to clean up because I can't stand the filth. But they are not here and if they tell you they are, they have never been seen."
Village of North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss has been in office for 16 years.
"Number one, I don't believe it, and I think frankly it can't be true because I see rubbish accumulates for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time," Natiss said.
Gusoff tagged litter on roads outside Nassau's jurisdiction too. State highways are supposed to be cleaned weekly or biweekly and be "closely monitored" by the New York State Department of Transportation. Segments must be kept "reasonably free from litter... including all on/off ramps."
But Gusoff's tagged litter sat in plain sight for more than three months on ramps - she later learned - within Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corporation segments.
"In other parts of New York state, the highways are kept clean. I always wonder what's going on here," said Suffolk Legislature Majority Leader Kara Hahn.
That's what Gusoff asked the NYS Department of Transportation: If they're monitoring, why is litter uncollected for months?
Her requests for an interview were denied. A spokesman's statement only addressed the obvious - littering is a problem.
Litter is unsightly and harmful to the environment, which is why we have dedicated significant resources to pick-up efforts. DOT's maintenance forces remove several tons of litter from along state highways on Long Island throughout the year and Adopt-A-Highway sponsors hire contractors who do the same. We all need to take responsibility for preventing litter by practicing good habits and encouraging others to do the same. Clean roadways are safer for everyone and allow highway crews to focus on infrastructure maintenance and repair.
Statement of Stephen Canzoneri
Spokesman, NYS DOT Long Island Region
If it snows, contractors may delay litter pick up until it all melts. That's been a non-issue this year, with light cover for only eight days, Gusoff reported.
Sponsors pay every month, whatever the weather.
"Obviously, we are paying for a service, we would like that service to be upheld," said highway sponsor Michael Kaufman.
Days after Gusoff shared her findings with the county and the company, suddenly there was a clean sweep.
"Trying to make the world better," one maintenance worker said.
An army of Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance crews collected, according to the company, 1,000 bags of litter.
"Isn't that ironic, or not really a coincidence at all," Wigginton said.
Begging the question: Does a program to clean up after drivers need a clean up itself?
There are other private litter removal companies with similar names throughout our region.
In fact, CBS2 sponsors a highway segment in Queens with another company.
If you see a chronically littered segment, your best bet is to complain to the sponsor and let them know the public is paying attention.
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