Re­cy­cling over­time cost nears $1M

Waste man­age­ment work­ers log over 33,000 ex­tra hours, but back­log re­mains

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By R.A. Schuetz STAFF WRITER

Vic­tor Ayres, man­ager of the city’s Fleet Man­age­ment Depart­ment, sur­veyed three dozen garbage, re­cy­cling and bulk waste trucks out­side of the North­west Ser­vice Cen­ter on a re­cent Fri­day in the dark­ness be­fore dawn. They had all been pulled off the road for re­pairs.

Mean­while, on many Hous­ton res­i­den­tial streets, over­flow­ing blue or green bins had been sit­ting out for days, a con­stant re­minder of ba­sic city ser­vices that have yet to be car­ried out.

“We’re fail­ing as a city,” said City Coun­cil­man Mike Knox, who said his yard waste has been await­ing pickup for so long that the biodegrad­able bags have be­gun to de­com­pose. Knox was among many Hous­to­ni­ans com­plain­ing about garbage and re­cy­cling.

But the in­ac­tiv­ity on the streets be­lied the hours spent by city driv­ers and me­chan­ics at­tempt­ing to elim­i­nate the back­log.

Since mid-Novem­ber, when de­lays be­gan in earnest, em­ploy­ees have clocked over 33,000 hours of over­time — $948,000. On a re­cent evening, me­chan­ics stayed at the North­west Ser­vice Cen­ter un­til 1 a.m. be­fore call­ing it a night. Four hours later, the next shift ar­rived, ready­ing for an­other long day of re­pairs.

To deal with the sit­u­a­tion at least in the short run, City Coun­cil will dis­cuss whether to spend $5 mil­lion to pay a pri­vate re­cy­cling ven­dor to take over a quar­ter of the City’s re­cy­cling col­lec­tion routes and to rent equip­ment, ac­cord­ing to Solid

Waste Man­age­ment Depart­ment Di­rec­tor Harry Hayes. The City Coun­cil re­cently ap­proved $14.6 mil­lion worth of equip­ment re­place­ments, but they likely will not ar­rive un­til Au­gust.

The city’s Solid Waste Man­age­ment Depart­ment has been work­ing vir­tu­ally around the clock to keep ag­ing garbage and re­cy­cling trucks on their routes. Over a decade of in­ad­e­quate pur­chas­ing means there are 15year-old trucks on the road, while Solid Waste Di­rec­tor Harry Hayes rec­om­mends re­plac­ing trucks ev­ery three to four years.

At the same time, a na­tional short­age of truck driv­ers and skilled la­bor has left the depart­ment shorthanded. Some­times there are not enough driv­ers for all the trucks. Other times, the need for main­te­nance forces trucks to re­main idle un­til one of the me­chan­ics, who are also short-handed, can ser­vice them.

The depart­ment then has to re­al­lo­cate the re­main­ing trucks to make sure all the garbage routes are cov­ered, which of­ten means hours of over­time.

Walk­ing down the line of Solid Waste ve­hi­cles that had been pulled off of the road, Ayres rat­tled off their model years: 2006, 2003, 1994.

He pointed at a truck with an arm used for pick­ing up bulk waste. “That’s from 2003, so it’s prob­a­bly on its last leg,” he said. “It’s been through Hur­ri­cane Ike, the Tax Day Flood, the Me­mo­rial Day Flood and Har­vey” — all times when the trucks saw greater use, lead­ing to greater wear and a short­ened life span.

Hous­ton is one of the only ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas in the na­tion that does not di­rectly charge a fee to pick up trash and re­cy­cling. In­stead, it re­lies on tax dol­lars, which Hayes said means trucks are only re­placed spo­rad­i­cally as they com­pete with other pri­or­i­ties in the Gen­eral Fund.

The Fleet Man­age­ment Depart­ment rec­om­mends that the city re­place 25 trash and re­cy­cling trucks a year. In­stead, 62 were bought in 2007, fol­lowed by over a decade of in­ad­e­quate re­place­ments. In 2008, 2013 and 2017, none was pur­chased.

“It’s ei­ther feast or famine,” Hayes said.

The morn­ing Ayres re­viewed off­line trucks at the North­west Ser­vice Cen­ter, seven garbage and re­cy­cling trucks were down, leav­ing the cen­ter one truck short — it was shut­tled in from an­other cen­ter. Shortly after 6 a.m., driv­ers be­gan ar­riv­ing.

As they in­spected their ve­hi­cles, dozens found is­sues and be­gan to pull into the main­te­nance cen­ter to have them fixed be­fore set­ting out on their routes. By 7 a.m., four lines had formed of trucks await­ing re­pairs.

Staff from across the depart­ment were called upon to help move the wait­ing trucks as quickly as pos­si­ble. Den­nis Al­corn, who usu­ally works as a welder, busily set about re­plac­ing flat or stripped tires. “We’re a team,” he said. “It’s seven days, long hours.”

Ayres and Hayes hope seven-day weeks will soon be­come a thing of the past as re­sources trickle in. Five shiny new garbage and re­cy­cling trucks re­cently ar­rived; a to­tal of 20 are due this month and an­other 12 should ar­rive in May. The most re­cent or­der for 26 more should come in around Au­gust.

Harold Arm­strong, a se­nior me­chanic, said the new ar­rivals have al­ready picked up mo­rale. And Hayes says that if the con­tracts with the pri­vate re­cy­cling ven­dor and equip­ment rental com­pany go through, those ser­vices will be­gin Feb. 1.

It’s un­clear whether Solid Waste will man­age to ad­dress its worker short­age and re­place its fleet on a more reg­u­lar sched­ule. In the mean­time, Knox said, “We’re go­ing to have to do some se­ri­ous soul search­ing look­ing at the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Solid Waste… This is one of our core city ser­vices.”

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Mac Tol­lvier, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the fleet man­age­ment depart­ment for Hous­ton, ex­plained how main­tain­ing the ag­ing fleet is a strug­gle while be­ing se­verely un­der­staffed.

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Tracy Ken­nard, 54, a me­chanic for the city’s Waste Man­age­ment Depart­ment, waves into the garage the first of many garbage trucks that need main­te­nance.

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