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It’s taken seven years, but the lid is about to slam shut on garbage-seeking rats in Buffalo’s first-ring suburbs.

Bids were opened this morning in the West Seneca Town Clerk’s office for garbage and recycling totes for the town and for garbage totes the City of Lackawanna. The municipalities joined forces in seeking bids, which were submitted by Cascade Engineering, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Schaefer Systems International, which is based in Germany and has an office in Charlotte, N.C.

Though Cascade’s quotes were lower, per unit, for the totes themselves and distribution, municipal officials will be looking beyond price in the two bids. “Each one has items that don’t meet the specs,” said West Seneca Town Attorney Shawn P. Martin.

West Seneca and Lackawanna will be the last of communities bordering Buffalo to stop leaving garbage-filled bags on the curb that served as virtual buffet stations for rats and start using heavy-duty, wheeled receptacles, with attached lids to combat rodents.

Peter J. Tripi, a senior public health sanitarian for the Erie County Health Department, has been the local rat population’s Number One enemy – leading the call for totes through the years through a program called “Operation Clean Sweep-Go Clean Initiative.”

“It’s not just about rats,” Tripi said. “It’s about quality of life in your neighborhood.”

But there’s no ignoring those most unwelcome of creatures.

Tripi’s staff investigates complaints, offers suggestions for remediation – including removing potential food sources – and, as a last resort, leaves rat bait to kill them. Baiting is regulated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

But the program’s staff and services were gutted in 2011, under the previous Erie County administration, practically eliminating those investigations and leaving it up to homeowners to hire exterminators for baiting.

Back in 2010, before the service cuts, Tripi’s Rabies, Disease & Vector Control Program investigated 113 complaints from West Seneca and 106 from Lackawanna.

Between mid-March 2012, when the program was reinstated, and Dec. 31, the number of investigations had increased to 174 in West Seneca and 154 in Lackawanna. So far this year, the numbers are 70 and 45, respectively.

Leaders in both communities are eager to start driving away the nasty critters.

“I’m actually excited about it,” said Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski.

“It’s positive all the way around – for the quality of life, for the environment,” said West Seneca Town Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan.

Buffalo began implementing its garbage tote program in 2001, when there were approximately 2,220 rat-related investigations conducted by the county. By 2003, that number dropped to approximately 1,332.

But it wasn’t until 2006 before the Town of Tonawanda and Village of Kenmore started the suburban conversion.

So while Buffalo residents were using totes, plastic bags of garbage still were being put to the curb across the border, in Kenmore.

“We had people say they saw them running across the street,” Tripi related, referring to rats.

Lawmakers and residents speculated that the rat population was on the move toward the suburbs.

“There is some validity” to that theory, Tripi said. “They are going to migrate to where the food is.”

So where will they go next?

“You are never going to eliminate every single rat. It’s impossible,” Tripi said.

Between the totes, which cut down on the rats’ food supply, and the county’s poison baiting program, the rat population can be kept to a minimum, he explained.

Amherst, the Village of Williamsville and the City of Tonawanda switched to totes in 2007, then it was five more years before the Town of Cheektowaga and Village of Sloan rolled them out in 2012.

Depew is poised to begin using them this summer. The target is late summer in West Seneca and fall in Lackawanna.

Not only are they ready to take on rat populations in their neighborhoods, Meegan and Szymanski also are looking forward to savings on weight-based garbage-tipping fees. Lidded totes prevent garbage from getting soaked – and heavier – from rain.

“Having these lids on these containers will reduce the water. You pay for that,” said Meegan, who noted that an increase in recycling can save even more money.

Before their totes hit curbside, lawmakers in West Seneca and Lackawanna must pass legislation mandating their use. Both communities plan to use bond issues to pay for them.

“It’s the only proven way to have the rats end – you take away their food source,” said Szymanski, Lackawanna’s mayor. “We’re going to have to tighten up our code enforcement on garbage nights.”

Enforcement is key, agrees Tripi. “A law is only as good as its enforcement. If you don’t, you’re back to where you were,” he said.

It happened in the Ken-Ton community, where the number of complaints to Tripi’s office started climbing a few years after totes were implemented.

The number of rat-related investigations had gone from 1,435 in 2006 to 417 in 2008. Then it increased to 827 in 2010.

Complacency was part of the problem. Not only were residents overloading totes to the point where lids wouldn’t close, they got lazy about removing the secondary food sources for rodents: bird seed spilled beneath backyard feeders and pet waste that wasn’t picked up.

“It’s not illegal to have a bird feeder,” Tripi said. “It’s illegal to have the food fall on the ground and not clean it up.” It’s the same thing with dog excrement.

But Ken-Ton wasn’t the only first-ring suburb with an increase in rat complaints in 2010.

In the Town of Amherst, the number dropped from 701 in 2007 to 253 in 2008, after the first full year of tote use. Then it increased to 296 in 2010.

In Buffalo, rat investigations climbed to 1,365 in 2012 – following the suspension of baiting in 2011.

Hot, dry weather prompted rats to seek new water sources, which included the fruit and vegetables growing in backyard gardens. “It was extremely dry, so you’re going to see more sightings,” Tripi said.

It hasn’t even been a full year of tote use in Cheektowaga, but the number of investigations is trending toward a significant decrease. There were 746 complaints for that nine-month period in 2012; as of May 22, there have been 101 this year.

But totes aren’t the be-all and end-all to the rodent problem, Tripi said. Baiting, enforcement and education must remain part of an ongoing effort.

“We call it integrated pest management,” Tripi said. Multiple tools being used at multiple levels, by multiple governments and multiple communities.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” Tripi said. “Diligence is what does it.”

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com