city government public safety recovery

‘My garbage has been sitting on that curb forever’: Tempers flare at meeting on the trash crisis

(Mid-City Messenger)

By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger

As 70 city employees took to the streets to help contractors clear away bags of garbage from outside homes, the City Council met with administration officials and the city’s solid waste contractors Friday (Sept. 17) for a sometimes contentious discussion of the city’s mounting trash problem. They could all agree on one thing: The situation stinks.

It is also a health hazard, according to residents who spoke or submitted written comments at the joint meeting of the City Council’s Budget and Public Utility committees. They described maggots, rodents and polluted air brought on by the lingering piles of rancid garbage in front of their homes.

The long-term problem was exacerbated after Hurricane Ida caused streets to be blocked by downed trees as storm debris and the ruined contents of refrigerators piled up.

“We do not underestimate the crisis that this is,” Ramsey Green, the mayoral aide in charge of infrastructure, told the council members.

“We’ve been managing a continuous array of crises for quite a while, and this is not an easy one to solve,” he said. “We have sat before you for Hard Rock, for multiple storms, for Covid. This is the first time where we cannot throw money at a problem to solve this issue quickly. We’ve tried that.”

The city cast a wide net seeking emergency contracts for additional solid waste collection after Ida, but had difficulty finding takers.

On Thursday (Sept. 16), Ramelli Waste began removing garbage bags from curbs in the area south of Interstate 10 serviced by Richard’s Disposal, but a potential contractor for the Metro area, north of I-10, does not have the drivers to operate the trucks, according to a Mayor’s Office press release.

Green and Gilbert Montano, the city’s chief administrative officer, spoke of a nationwide shortage of sanitation workers, especially drivers. There are currently 20 trash trucks in Florida ready to head to New Orleans, they said, but there’s no one to drive them.

A partial short- and long-term solution did emerge from the meeting: developing new transfer stations. This could reduce the travel time for drop-offs, letting workers spend more time emptying trash cans.

After a truck is full of household garbage — which could occur after a block or so in post-Ida New Orleans — it heads all the way to River Birch Landfill in Avondale to dump it. So that truck is on the road for hour, instead of on the streets picking up more garbage.

The matter with Metro

The city’s trash problem did not begin with the storm. Trash pickup in Metro Service Group territory, including Gentilly and parts of Faubourg St. John, has been routinely deficient, residents say. At Friday’s meeting, council members called on the administration to fine Metro for failure to fulfill its contractual obligations. Residents went further, demanding that the city fire its contractor.

Jimmie Woods

Metro owner Jimmie Woods sat through the complaints before telling council members: “As of today, we have passed every neighborhood in our service area at least once.”

District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso asked him, “What do I tell someone who says, ‘I’m on Day 24 and my trash still hasn’t been picked up?”

As Woods responded, “I don’t think that’s the case, Councilman,” Fairgrounds area resident Eraina Jessie walked to the microphone to declare: “I’m sorry, but he’s lying.”

She added: “My garbage has been sitting on that curb forever.”

In response to Jessie and further questioning from Giarrusso, Woods discussed the difficulty he had in finding subcontractors to help with Covid-related labor shortages even before the Ida-related problems. IV Waste began subcontracting with Metro in Lakeview on Tuesday (Sept. 14) but has limited capacity.

“We’re not shirking our responsibility, and I’m not making one excuse,” Woods said. “We’re doing everything humanly possible to get this thing back on track — and we’re not sparing any resources.”

Many commenters called on Metro — whose hoppers went on strike in 2020 over low pay and poor conditions — to increase wages.

Woods said he is paying drivers $17 an hour. He did not provide a figure for the hoppers, the sanitation workers who empty the bins into the truck, but said: “Hoppers are required to be paid at the city’s living wage level, and we actually pay beyond that.” The city’s living wage is currently $11.19 an hour.

These sanitation workers are also subjected to the public’s anger and frustration over the slow removal of rotting garbage. “I had one who had a gun pulled on him by a resident and another one who was hit with a baseball bat,” Woods said. “That gentleman showed back up to work the next day and continued to collect garbage.”

Several council members suggested supplementing the existing contracts to allow for higher wages. The administration officials balked, however, at readjusting established contracts and at increasing the payment to a low-performing vendor. The solid waste contracts run until 2024.

“To throw money at an existing contract to try to gain more drivers and hoppers is the wrong path to take right now,” Montano said. “There is absolutely a vital reorganization that we have to evaluate as we rebid the contracts, and that’s an absolute necessity.

“That’s a long-term solution,” he continued. “That doesn’t take the trash off the streets in front of residents’ houses right now.”

Transfer stations

One idea for getting trash off the streets right now involves changing how it gets from the curb to the landfill in Avondale.

More residents are currently getting to know the Sanitation Department’s  transfer station at 2829 Elysian Fields Ave. as the site for do-it-yourself garbage drop-off since Sept. 15. The station is also used for the city’s twice-monthly drop-off recycling for items such as tires, electronics and glass.

According to a 2018 report by the City Planning Commission, the site at Elysian Fields and Florida avenues is the city’s only transfer station, where trash can be temporarily held before it’s carted off to River Birch.

That could change. Both administration officials and council members expressed support for creating more transfer stations, beginning with temporary stations as an emergency measure.

“We have to do something super drastic right now,” Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno said. “And I think it’s the potential of these temporary transfer stations and trying to come up with companies who can come in here and do the job quickly.”

Gilbert Montano

Alleviating the long trips to the landfill could be the key to getting trash collected more quickly, officials said. “That is both a short- and a long-term issue that we are currently working on,” Montano said.

He noted money is earmarked for that project in the mayor’s mid-year budget request. And with emergency powers now in place, the city can identify sites and set up temporary transfer stations to get through the post-Ida trash crisis.

“Discussions are occurring now,” he said. “I’m getting text messages saying these discussions are going on as we speak.”

Algiers and New Orleans East have large tracts of land that do not border residential areas, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer pointed out. “So the impact could be very, very minimal on the neighborhood, if it’s done thoughtfully,” she said.

“We’ve got all of these employees out there collecting trash,” Moreno said, referring to Operation Mardi Gras. “That’s a super tough job. I would think it’s probably easier for them to be standing at a transfer station. And that may actually lead to a faster solution to getting everyone’s trash.”

For the 166 residents who sent in written comments and the half dozen who spoke at the meeting, that can’t come soon enough. “I was at the point of naming every maggot in my garbage,” said Suzie Cobb of the City Park Neighborhood Association.

The Budget and the Public Works committees will continue the garbage pickup discussion on Tuesday (Sept. 21) at 9:30 a.m.

Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at khart@nolamessenger.com

One Reply to “‘My garbage has been sitting on that curb forever’: Tempers flare at meeting on the trash crisis

  1. I had to leave Mid-City because in the year I was travelling, caring for my husband who had cancer, prices went cray-cray. (This was 2013). I am on the Wank now, in Old Algiers, and I have to say things work better over here than they do for you. Metro has been MIA, but Richard’s has picked up my trash twice – possibly because my street is zoned mixed use. I generally give my trash guys $20 apiece at Xmas, give them cold water in the summer, and thank them every time I see them. They make a point of taking whatever I put out. Why? Because I recognize them as decent, hardworking individuals with a very nasty job that makes my life bearable. Who wouldn’t want to reward someone like that?

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