It’s not been a good few months for Waste Pro, the garbage hauler in Palm Coast and unincorporated Flagler County. Again.
But this time the problems are occurring just as the city was surveying residents about their garbage service and the kind of service they want in the future: the city’s contract with Waste Pro expires in 2022. City officials have already begun the long process that will culminate with bidding out the contract and choosing the next hauler. Waste Pro’s 14-year relationship with the city may either end at that point or, assuming significant improvements in current service, win yet another extension. The last months’ littered record isn’t helping, nor did what seemed like an attempt by the company to give its trucks the inside lane in the coming negotiations by having management cozy up to council members.
The list of complaints for March alone is 97 pages long, in the city’s tally.
“Full route missed.” “I’ve had debris sitting in my yard for over a month that has not been picked up.” “Recycling not picked up Thursday, Friday or Saturday on Ibis Court N. in Grand Haven.”
From Black Oak Ct: “Missed picking up 4 car [tires]. Been sitting out there for a week.” From Fairhill Lane: “Entire street was missed for recycle.” Same day, from Crompton Place: “Entire street’s garbage was missed yesterday.” Same day, Febre Lane: “a few streets were missed,” with one customer calling very aggrieved that her pick-up was missed for the third time in four weeks.
And on it goes, street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, entire streets–if not subdivisions–missed, garbage bins not being emptied thoroughly, “Same old, same old lousy service,” as one customer put it to the city’s customer service department, with every geographic area of the city generating complaints at one point or another. The words “entire,” “whole area missed” or “entire neighborhood” keep recurring in the complaints list.
Palm Coast levies fines on Waste Pro for poor service, documenting the location and reason for each complaint. For March alone, fines totaled $7,500, the highest total in two years and the fourth-highest monthly total in the last four years. The worst month for the company in that span was in March 2018, when it tallied $34,400 in fines. Its crews tallied $14,500 in fines in January 2019 and $10,000 that April. The company had a good 2020, but fines have accumulated and risen in four successive months since November–$750 in fines in December, $1,500 in January, $2,000 in February, then March’s big spike, causing the city to issue an unusual statement on Thursday.
“The City of Palm Coast is aware of the delays in pickup around the City. These lapses in timely and consistent service are unacceptable,” the release read, noting the extent of the problem: Waste Pro alone can’t be relied on alone anymore to provide service. “The City is proactively communicating with temporary staffing services, private and public waste haulers, and other municipalities to assist,” the statement continued. “All of these options will be a charge to Waste Pro and not at a cost to residents.”
The county has generally had a chummier relationship with Waste Pro and does not levy fines when service falters.
Melissa Catalanotto, manager of Waste Pro corporate communications, cited chronic problems with the industry as she noted the company’s cooperation with the city. “The demand for qualified drivers and helpers currently outpaces the supply due to the nationwide driver shortage,” she said in an email. “Locally, we are actively working to train new drivers and helpers and have implemented increased recruiting efforts including an upcoming job fair on April 8 at the Hilton Garden Inn.”
The waste-hauling industry in particular and the trucking industry in general have been experiencing a driver shortage for years–at least according to industry statements like the American Trucking Association. But the claims may not be as pronounced, or accurate, as they seem.
“The ATA has been arguing systematically since 2005 that firms hauling freight face a shortage of truck drivers, and discussion within the industry of a shortage actually dates to the late 1980s,” a Bureau of Labor Statistics–the federal government agency–reported in March 2019. “Stories about a persistent driver shortage—and its potential effects on the larger economy—have also appeared periodically in major media outlets, most recently in 2018.” The analysis goes on to recognize that while the market for truck driver has been “tight” from 2003 through 2017, it also found “normal labor market behavior.”
“This finding suggests that the market for truck drivers works about as well as that for other blue-collar occupations, and that, broadly speaking, we should expect that if wages rise when the labor market for truck drivers is too tight, the potential for any long-term shortages will be ameliorated,” the analysis found. Put another way: pay your drivers well, and you won’t have a problem attracting them. But that’s not necessarily in companies’ hands alone. The current median pay for rank and file waste haulers in Florida is $19.33, according to BLS. If residents want better service, they may have to put up with somewhat higher fees that enable the better pay, and with it surer retention of haulers.
As far as the city is concerned, the hauler’s problems are its own. It’s under a $9 million a year contract with Palm Coast, with residents paying $244 a year to see their garbage picked up on time, twice a week, on a reasonably steady basis. The complaints to the city–echoed by shriller decibels on social media sites such as Facebook neighborhood groups–suggest that’s not happening.
“Residents in our recent Solid Waste survey have overwhelming rated consistent and timely pickups as being a top priority,” City Manager Matthew Morton is quoted as saying in the statement the city released Thursday. “That is the level of service we contracted for, what our residents are paying for, and what is expected. We will continue to work diligently to get this matter resolved.”
Morton’s predecessor had at times used even stronger language to reflect the council’s displeasure with the hauler in previous bursts of shoddy service: “It stinks,” Jim Landon had said of Waste Pro’s service that month when the company racked up the $34,000 in fines, and Mayor Milissa Holland alluded to ending the contract.
Waste Pro since March 2018 has accumulated $112,500 in fines.
Holland was more diplomatic when asked about Waste Pro on Thursday. “After receiving numerous messages about Waste Pro’s failure to meet their contractual obligations to our residents,” she said, “I immediately reached out to our city manager to ask for a resolution. Besides the fines that are now accruing to Waste Pro per our contract, they have been put on a 30 day performance plan. Our residents pay for a service and expect and deserve delivery on that service. We are going through an evaluative process now as Waste Pro’s contract is set to expire and have engaged the community in advance in an effort to continue to meet the communities needs and provide the level of service our residents have come to expect. A competitive bid will be required and a vendor will be selected to provide a necessary service in our community. Whether that will be Waste Pro or another vendor I cannot say at this time as we are very early in the process and my focus is to ensure that this lack of service will not continue.”
There is good news for Waste Pro: the city’s month-long survey window has closed.