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Picking up rotten, smelly garbage at 33,000 Cheektowaga households each week is not a pleasant task, but that's not the Sanitation Department's gripe these days.

The 90-member department, responsible for one of the most basic municipal functions, is faced with a number of pressing issues that sanitation foreman have complained about in recent weeks. They include:

A worn-out, outdated fleet of trucks, with the vehicles in and out of the repair shop. Safety concerns prevent at least two 18-year-old garbage packers from making the 50-mile round trips to a Niagara Falls dump.

An aging sanitation building on Union Road behind the Police Department. A leaky roof, broken windows and gutters, a cramped, old lunchroom and a dirty bathroom with one working shower are just a few of the conditions plaguing the 30-year-old structure.

The uncertainty of the department's future direction and leadership. The department's chief, David J. Kulik, has been on sick leave the past few months, and there is speculation he may take an early retirement incentive. Two foremen have been running the department in his absence.

While getting the Sanitation Department back on track in 1998 is supposed to be the town's No. 1 priority, some workers don't feel that sentiment is reflected in the town's proposed 1998 budget. Sanitation spending is at $7.1 million, up only slightly from this year's nearly $7 million budget. In addition, the sanitation chief's salary has been eliminated from next year's spending plan.

Meanwhile, town officials have said little to sanitation employees about Cheektowaga's plans for a department overhaul.

"We have no clue what's going on . . . not a thing," said Frank C. Max Jr., one of the foremen overseeing the department in Kulik's absence.

"We think this is a key department," Max added. "People's garbage and recycling have to be picked up. Next to police protection, this is a priority."

Officials say they are well aware of the wear and tear affecting the Sanitation Department, and a plan already is in action. But sanitation costs are expensive, and changes will take time, officials added.

"The cost of waste disposal is something that affects every municipality. We're trying to deal with it the best we can," said Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak.

Gabryszak took the first step last month when he said Sanitation Department problems will take priority next year.

The next step was successfully renegotiating a garbage-dumping contract with AmericanRef-Fuel, saving the town more than $318,000 and lowering the garbage tax rate 3 cents next year, said Councilman James J. Jankowiak, who approached American Ref-Fuel about lowering its per-ton dumping fee.

Jankowiak, whose town committees include sanitation-recycling and fleet maintenance, agrees that the Sanitation Department has not been a focus in the past. That's going to change, he said.

For starters, the town recently spent $400,000 on three new garbage packers and two dump trucks for sanitation, he said.

The town, as part of its long-range plan for the department, hopes to spend money on a few pieces of sanitation equipment each year so all the vehicles don't get old at once, which is happening now, Jankowiak added.

Adding more semi-automated routes, where a worker wheels large plastic containers to the rear of a truck and a mechanical tipper lifts the bins to dump the contents; renovating sanitation buildings; and merging the sanitation and recycling departments with the town's Engineering Department are all issues that will be considered, Jankowiak said.

"All of these issues fold into each other," he said. "We have to take a good look at sanitation, there's no doubt."

An independent review of the entire department is being considered, Gabryszak said.

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