SEBRING — Highlands County Commissioner Don Elwell asked the crowd in a town hall meeting last week, “How many have had no problems with their trash over the last couple of months?”
About half of the 40 people who attended raised their hands.
“OK,” said Elwell, who chairs the County Commission this year. “Quite a few of you.”
“How many people have had a lot of problems over the past few months?” Elwell asked. “There’s far fewer of you. To be honest, I haven’t had many problems, but I still get phone calls every day. I get tagged on Facebook every day. I read the articles in the paper.”
Last week, the Highlands News-Sun asked on Facebook if residents have flies and maggots in their garbage cans. That post reached 15,625 people, was shared 66 times, and received 146 comments. Some had problems, others didn’t.
“I hope they change it back soon,” Mary Bruns Persinger wrote. “It’s hard to go on walks; you have to smell everyone’s putrid trash cans left out on the side of the road. It’s disgusting! What’s even worse is seeing the maggots on everyone’s trash cans.”
Waste Connections started delivering blue trash carts and green recycling containers in February. Regional Manager Jim Wheatley has faced thousands of phone calls and complaints since.
The 79-page contract between Highlands County and Waste Collections specifies one trash pickup per week and one recycling pickup. White goods and yard waste are picked up on alternate weeks.
“The problem I have right now is that the company is not picking up, still,” Elwell said. “They have customer service that would make Delta Airlines look good by comparison. The customer service is just horrific. We’re still getting reports of people who are not answering phone calls. We’re still getting reports of people calling five, six, 10 times, not getting answers. Leaving messages. Not getting callbacks. Requesting smaller cans. Not getting a callback or a can.
“There have been problems, fundamental issues, that we have been very nice about because we’re going through the transition period,” Elwell said. “We’ve been going through the transition period since February. It’s now July. I do believe it is time for the transition period end.
“I do believe that at the very least, it is time for us to hold the company accountable to the terms of the contract,” Elwell said. “There’s actually a commencement date. A commencement date has to be agreed upon. And it was going to be March, and it was going to be April.
“We’re going to have to say, ‘Now it’s time that, if we call you and tell you that you have to fix this particular address, you’ve got 72 hours to fix it, otherwise it’s a breach of the contract. Now it’s time for you to take care of the customer-service issues,” Elwell said
“How many people knew last week,” Elwell referred to the July 4 holiday, “that your trash would not be picked up on the regular day? How many did not know? I’ve heard from 150, I think, in total, from phone calls and text messages and things like that. And they didn’t know.”
Not all of the annual increase for garbage service can be attributed to new curbside trash and recycling carts, Elwell said. The landfill was losing money, and the state has a target of recycling 75 percent of the trash in the landfill by 2020.
The county won’t get near 75 percent, Elwell suggested. “It probably won’t be anywhere near 50.”
Snowbirds requested recycling, Elwell said.
He suggested trash pickups twice a week, and recycling in a fifth pickup every other week. He was told people probably wouldn’t recycle enough. “If there’s not a need to recycle, they’re just going to put it in the other can.”
Elwell was told two pickups a week: one trash and one recycling. “I was OK with this. You know why? The company that said this has done it all over Florida,” Elwell said. “But then, what got thrown on us, was, ‘Oh. And we’re going to do all of this on the same day.’ That wasn’t part of the original plan. That was kind of an add-in that we heard about.
“But again, this is the company that’s done this all over the state,” Elwell said. “‘Oh, we’ve never had any problem. Flies? Maggots? We’ve never had any problem. It’s going to work out fine.’
“But this has been called by other people who work with Waste Connections, ‘a very bumpy rollout.’ One of their bumpiest rollouts ever,” Elwell said. “For a hundred different reasons.
“So, how do we fix it?” Elwell asked. “Do we throw in the towel now and go back to two times a week? How many say yes? How many say no?”
The number of yeses and nos was about even. How many would pay more fore three-times-weekly pickup, two trash and one recycling? Not a single hand went up.
“Yeah,” Elwell said to a quiet room. “That’s the problem.”
How long is the county’s contract with Waste Connections, Elwell was asked? “Only 10 years.”
Commissioner Jim Brooks and the Highlands County executive staff met last week to discuss trash problems, Elwell said. “And we’re hoping to come out of it with a whole lot better responsiveness.”