Weekly comments from Dale Martin – Frustrations continue with solid waste collection

By Dale Martin
City Manager
Fernandina Beach
September 3, 2021

City Manager Dale Martin

City staff continues to field complaints related to garbage collection. As is known, the City solicited proposals for garbage, recycling, and yard waste collection approximately three years ago, when the existing contract with Advanced Disposal Services expired. Advanced Disposal Services had been the City’s solid waste vendor for almost twenty years.

The City received several proposals for solid waste services at the time, and, with the significantly lower cost for services, the City Commission awarded the solid waste contract to Advanced Disposal Services. The contract provided for the same level of collection services service as was provided in the previous contract: twice weekly solid waste, weekly recycling, bulk waste, and weekly yard waste. Subsequent to the contract award, Advanced Disposal Services was acquired by Waste Management.

The onset of the pandemic led to a series of issues and frustrations by both residents and City staff. With people spending more time at home, solid waste volumes of all varieties increased markedly, especially garbage and yard waste. Waste Management operations, like many other businesses, struggled to maintain sufficient staff due to pandemic impacts. As a result, solid waste collection services deteriorated, with scheduled collections, in growing instances, not being reliable. The City did file an official complaint regarding service issues with Waste Management in July.

In addition to the impact of the pandemic, the transition to Waste Management was difficult. The call center offered to residents to report issues was an overwhelming disaster: call center operators, based far away and unfamiliar with Fernandina Beach, provided little relief to frustrated and angry residents. The lengthy call times and general unresponsiveness of the call center resulted in residents directing their frustration at City staff, who then worked directly with Waste Management officials to address the burgeoning and unresolved problems.

The overall frustration with yard waste collection efforts resulted in the decision to have City staff assume responsibility for yard waste collection. Existing staff was re-assigned, additional equipment purchased, and a collection site prepared to support this effort which was implemented approximately six months ago. Yard waste collection complaints have dropped significantly since the City assumption of those services. I offer compliments to Mr. Jeremiah Glisson, Mr. Rex Lester, and their staffs for developing and implementing the yard waste operations. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Glisson’s lengthy tenure with the City, he worked for the City’s Sanitation Department over twenty years ago when the City provided all solid waste collection services. His experience with solid waste operations is invaluable.

But frustrations continue with the remaining components of solid waste collection, most commonly late or missed collections. Other complaints include totes broken or improperly placed after collection (blocking driveways or roads or otherwise placed haphazardly). Several such complaints are fielded weekly by City staff, but, under the provisions of the contract, do not rise anywhere near the level necessary for termination of the contract for cause. For an additional avenue to voice a complaint (or compliment), the City and Waste Management have offered an email address for Fernandina Beach correspondence: [email protected]. The Waste Management call center can still be called at (800) 523-3861, (904) 879-2301, or (904)261-7186. A Facebook page (Advanced Disposal Fernandina Beach) has been created and managed by Waste Management to enhance outreach efforts.

In many instances, residents’ frustrations rise to the level of demanding that the City terminate the contract with Waste Management and solicit a different provider. Such an action by the City Commission is unlikely, mainly because of the lack of alternative providers. Changing solid waste vendors is a lengthy (for the City) and expensive (for the vendor) process (under current market conditions, the anticipated time to secure new equipment is approximately twelve-to-eighteen months). The number of solid waste collection vendors is dwindling due to corporate acquisitions and business failures. The aftermarket for recycling has been essentially reduced to nothing, and when combined with increasing contamination of materials intended for recycling, some communities are actually abandoning recycling collection altogether- simply put it in the trash.

Alternatives to a different provider are also limited. The City can abandon a community-wide franchise agreement and implement garbage collection as it is handled in the unincorporated county areas: every resident contracts individually with a garbage vendor. That would be an easy solution for the City, as then the City is removed from the garbage collection service. City staff does not recommend or support this concept.

The other alternative is to return garbage collection as a City-provided service (much as is now done with yard waste). The City once provided this service, but in a cost-reduction effort, privatized garbage collection services. To return the services to the City would be an estimated cost of approximately $4.5 million. City staff does not recommend or support this concept.

For now, we continue to work with Waste Management officials to address the challenges and complaints. I believe that Waste Management officials do wish to improve services and maintain what has been, for the most part, a strong and beneficial relationship with the City and its residents.