FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Two months ago the City of Fort Wayne told WANE 15 that they were actively working with Red River Waste Solutions to address missed collections. Viewers reported to us then that it was a reoccurring issue and weeks later they tell us the same.
Resident Dave Bergeron said before Red River Waste Solutions took over the city’s trash pickup, garbage trucks used to miss the alley where his trash can sits maybe once every six months. Now, he said it happens every two or three weeks.
“Because we live on an alley, we have to put our we have to move our actual containers,” Bergeron said. “If they don’t get picked up, they could stay there for three, four or five days. And we’ve had issues with rodents and things. So we want our garbage to get picked up.”
Bergeron said the misses could happen because of the layout of his area, but the city’s 311 tracker shows he is not alone.
Steven Smith, Vice President of Business Development and Government Relations for Red River, said on a normal day they only get between 70 and 110 calls from their more than 122,000 customers about missed trash and he has not seen much change in that, especially as Red River has made changes to routes.
“Fort Wayne has grown quite a bit over the last 20 years,” Smith said. “Rearranging those to where they were contiguous in nature has really helped coverage on those areas if it becomes heavy, or there’s more trucks anticipated in that kind of thing. So, we’ve seen a great deal of improvement there.”
He said trash collections can sometimes get behind if their routes have more trash than usual.
“This time of year, there was a spike in what we pick up as far as yard waste and that kind of thing,” Smith said. “So there are variables and timing, that, that that affects us on some routes, we noticed some neighborhoods are a lot heavier with yard waste. And so some of those routes run later in the afternoon than they normally would.”
Bergeron said that is not the case with his neighborhood, that trash gets missed all year-round. However, when it happens, he has had luck getting the issue resolved.
“I have one big piece of advice, I’ve been astonished at the number of people that just let it go,” Bergeron said. “They don’t call. I’ve had advocates that have helped in this Jeff Paddock, fantastic guy, terrific public servant, and Victoria Edwards, who works with the solid waste department. They have both been extremely proactive, and really wanted to solve this problem.”
According to Smith calling is the best way to try and permanently fix the issues.
“That’s a good thing if there are people that are calling in there is an issue we want to get it resolved,” said Smith. “We can drill down and okay what’s causing the calls.”
WANE 15 reached out to the city of Fort Wayne for comment since they previously told us they were actively working with Red River to improve service. In response, they sent us a previously published editorial written by Public Works Director Shan Gunawardena.
As we begin the recovery process from the COVID-19 pandemic and many segments of life appear to be getting back to normal, the efforts of the City of Fort Wayne’s Solid Waste Department are also getting back to normal operations. As the pandemic hit us last year, in an effort to protect our garbage collectors, the Solid Waste Department imposed a cart only limit – meaning that we would only collect garbage that was placed in city-provided carts. This minimized the amount of loose bags and items not placed within the carts that our garbage handlers were exposed to. This was not a City of Fort Wayne initiative but a standard adopted by many providers in the solid waste industry. In order to accommodate those residents who have more garbage than can fit in one bin, we did provide additional bins at a cost of $2 per month for Fort Wayne residents who are solid waste customers. In spite of this, we have seen the total tonnages collected during the pandemic increase by 1,500 tons. This can be attributed to many residents working from home as well as not going out to restaurants to eat, thereby generating more residential waste. Online shopping is another contributor to tonnage increases.
During the pandemic, Red River Waste Solutions has done a respectable job of keeping collections on schedule, as reflected by very low miss rates this past year. The cart limit actually helped them to do so while tonnages were up, because drivers could service the bins using the automated arms without having to get out of their vehicles to pick up bags and dump them in the back of the truck.
As life reverts back to normal and yard work season is upon us, our residents have more yard waste disposal needs, and the Solid Waste Department has decided to pick up yard waste bags that are placed outside the bin. We ask residents to be mindful of how much yard waste they generate as every stop to pick up multiple bags causes the route service to be that much slower.
The solid waste industry, just like many other industries that rely on trucking, is seeing a significant shortage of qualified truck drivers. Driving a solid waste truck requires a commercial driver’s license and Red River, just like many other local businesses, is struggling to find qualified personnel. With construction season starting up again, the demand for CDL drivers is going up with fewer qualified candidates available to do the job.
Red River does have a contractual obligation to pick up any and all garbage set out by our residents. Our residents also have to adhere to the City Garbage Ordinance on what items they place for pick up. Some common issues we observe include the following:
· Excessive amounts of yard waste bags – while the ordinance does not specify how much is permissible, we routinely encounter residents setting out 25 or more bags of yard waste per residence to be picked up by the hauler. This can slow down progress of the route driver significantly.
· Excessive amounts of bulk – we typically pick up one bulk item per week. However, we routinely see large numbers of bulk items resulting from move outs, discarded furniture, remodeling, tenant evictions, etc.
· Non-residential waste – this is particularly prevalent among rental property owners. While the residents of a rental property are eligible for residential solid waste services, the property owners who own these units need to be mindful that cleaning up after a tenant or remodeling a rental unit does not qualify for residential solid waste services. A commercial hauler should be contracted for these types of collections.
· Construction debris – many DIY projects generate significant amounts of construction debris. While we do service de minimis amounts, a large DIY project will more than likely generate more than is considered typical residential garbage.
· Exposed mattresses – mattresses need to be wrapped in plastic for pick up by Red River. If not, they will be tagged and left behind.
· Scattered debris in yards/improperly packaged garbage – Red River is contractually required to pick up garbage and dispose of it, not to clean up residents’ yards.
· Late set outs – We see numerous instances of residents setting out their bins after the route has been serviced, and then calling in a miss. Some residents expect the route to be serviced every week at a specific time. However, when several of the other factors above come into play, it is difficult to predict when a specific resident will be serviced. Therefore, we ask that all residents set out their bins the night before. If you forget and set it out the following morning and the route has already been serviced, please do not call it in as a miss.
The above are just a few examples of the types of calls that we receive. Every one of them requires staff time to address. While there have been several calls out to fine Red River for every miss, we have to make sure each miss we penalize them for is legitimate. It takes tremendous amounts of staff time and resources to determine the legitimate misses from ones that are not.
The selection of Red River Waste Solutions as our garbage/recycling hauler was done per State law. We solicited public bids for this service and selected the lowest most responsive bidder. Regardless of how or why they bid the way they did, the Solid Waste Department has an obligation to work with this contractor and provide the service we have committed to Fort Wayne’s residents. Cost is a factor when determining the value of the service, and while there have been several calls to hold this contractor in default, the cost consequences of that action as well as disruptions to service would be drastic.
Red River did have many service issues from the onset of their contract in January 2018. The Solid Waste Department has worked tirelessly with them in order to address those issues and above all, make sure that garbage is collected. While we have seen many instances in which residential trash was not picked up on the scheduled date, we have very few instances in which they were not serviced within the next business day or two.
As we continue to see new drivers rotating through the route schedules, it takes 6 to 8 weeks for new drivers to learn some of our more complex routes, such as in the older city areas, that have a mix of alley and curbside pick up locations. This can lend to frustrations with our residents as the same ones may experience misses repeatedly. However, as these misses are called in to the 311 call center or submitted online, the Solid Waste Department will address them within a couple of days.
In 2018, when Red River had very high rates of misses, we were able to fine them and utilize the penalties to pay for collection services performed by city employees working for the Street Department. This is still an option we can consider if the reported miss levels go up to 2018 levels. However, they have not been high and we have been able to get any misses back to Red River for service. We also now have a garbage truck and driver working for the Solid Waste Department, who can handle those misses that get called in as urgent or ‘hot.’ This was not something we had available two years ago.
We have heard from customers outside the City limits of missed garbage pickups from other haulers. In those instances, residents have been getting messages that they will be picked up on the next scheduled date.
As anyone who owns their own business knows, operating a business that is non-profitable is not sustainable, and could result in extremely poor service to the customers. To this end, we have been working with Red River’s management team to make sure service levels are acceptable while they also find ways to be successful from a business perspective. We also want to make sure that when we bid this contract again in a few years, we will have other contractors who will be willing to bid on it and not cost the residents of Fort Wayne a significant rate increase, due to bidders passing on more risk to the customers.
As we contemplate the possibility of a rate increase for solid waste services, it would be prudent to discuss the amount of services that our Solid Waste Department provides, compared with other regional entities. The existing rate of $12.00 per single unit residential property is still one of the lowest in the region, and includes additional services such as one bulk item per week, a weekend household hazardous waste (HHW) program, neighborhood cleanups and leaf collection, and unlimited yard waste (this last service was suspended due to COVID from April 2020 until May 2021). Monthly rates in the region range from $12.95 to $22.50 for cart limit solid waste and recycling pickup only with no bulk collection, HHW, neighborhood cleanup or leaf collection.
We have seen Red River’s and the City’s Solid Waste Department’s competence questioned many times at City Council and in the media. While this makes it harder for Red River to hire and retain qualified drivers, it also makes it harder for the Solid Waste Department to continue to provide the services they do day in and day out. There are many ways in which this contract could have been handled, and I wholeheartedly stand by my staff and the manner in which they have administered this contract under extremely difficult and contentious circumstances. The Solid Waste Department is committed to providing the best possible service at the most affordable cost. I also want to thank the residents of Fort Wayne for being our partners in this effort to be a growing and clean city for all of us to enjoy. This year, Mayor Tom Henry convened a Solid Waste Advisory Board to review the performance of our contractors – both Red River and Republic Services –, evaluate the services we perform in the Solid Waste Department, and make recommendations to City Council. This Board is made up of neighborhood leaders, two members of City Council and a Mayoral appointee. I am hopeful that the work that this Board does will help us address any service issues and provide the service this community needs at a reasonable price and do so in a respectful manner.