Seven men who collect the trash and recyclables Columbia residents regularly set out at their curbside asked the Columbia City Council, during a public hearing Monday night, to give them some consideration.
Lax enforcement of city rules over the years have allowed residents to put just about anything at the curbside, the workers said. Couches, mattresses, lawn mowers, treadmills and even weight sets have been left at the curb.
The group tried to shed light on the dangerous working conditions, staff vacancy issues and financial struggles they face in their line of work to urge the council to approve budget amendments for fiscal 2021 designed to restore the health of the solid waste utility.
Robert Smith, a Solid Waste Utility mechanic, told the council about the challenges involved in fixing broken-down garbage trucks. He said mechanics often must work on the back of the trucks amid broken glass, used needles and rotten food. He spoke of changing flat tires on a loaded truck while on the side of some of Columbia’s busiest streets.
Refuse collector Jimmy Hart appealed to the council.
“We ask for help,” he said. “We need more money. Our mechanics need more money.”
In the end, the council approved a set of amendments to the budget for trash and recycling collection. Fifth Ward Councilman Matt Pitzer, however, argued the amendments were Band-Aids trying to make temporary fixes to a broken utility.
The approved changes include:
- Requiring all trash and recyclables to be placed curbside in city-provided bags that are stamped with city logos. Residents will get 104 trash bags annually, double the 52 bags they get now. Additional bags will be available in rolls of 5 for $2 per bag.
- Requiring that residents pay $17.37 monthly for curbside trash and recycling pickup, an increase of 85 cents per month. Curbside recycling has been suspended since July because of staffing shortages. The change means the city will resume distributing blue bags for recycling.
Requiring residents to schedule bulky item collection at least a week in advance and charging $21.50 per pickup for the first item and $5 per additional item during the same pickup. Every household will get one free bulky-item pickup per year.
- Approving a $5 “add-pay” wage increase for solid waste workers, which will apply only when they are actually doing the physical work of collecting trash on routes.
- Charging a fee for special pickup of unlawfully placed material of $72.13 per container, plus $55 per ton of refuse and $1.15 per minute it takes to load the container.
- Employing a code enforcement specialist to focus on addressing unlawfully placed material and illegal dumping.
First Ward Councilwoman Pat Fowler pushed for giving all solid waste collectors with commercial driver’s licenses the $5 add pay, regardless of whether they were working with a full crew of city workers or a crew comprising temporary workers.
“I have a concern that ... the process by which you come to work for solid waste, you have to be a CDL driver,” Fowler told Utilities Director Dave Sorrell during the meeting. “There’s a process by which people come in as a temporary-worker-to-permanent worker while they’re waiting to become a CDL driver ... But sir, we’re in a hole, so if our need is to draw regular employees into Solid Waste ... shouldn’t we be pulling folks into trash collection with offering that add pay? ... That way we draw more people in and compensate them fairly for the dirty, stinky, messy work they do.”
Pitzer said that while he’d like to pay trash collectors more, there are also firefighters and police officers who deserve higher wages.
“We’re talking about this because we’re in a hole, because we have a system that does not work,” Pitzer said. “It’s broken down. We’re just going to put a Band-Aid on something. I am in favor of giving everybody a raise if we could, but nobody else in the city is getting a raise this year. We’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Mayor Brian Treece said the staff proposal, “whether it’s a Band-Aid or not, is the best solution for the problem we are currently faced with.”
The council also discussed the possibility of an automated trash collection system in 2021, based on the current petition initiative to get roll carts on the April ballot.
Fowler believes the petition will succeed.
“I have every confidence that we will have a ballot question in April ... and the way the wind is blowing, we will be looking at automated trash collection in April,” Fowler said.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala seemed to disagree.
“I guess I’m not as sanguine about the inevitably of going to some other system,” he said. “For the folks encouraging it, I hope it’s successful for them. And obviously, as council, we’ll do what we are asked to do. ... But I’m not convinced.”
Skala also disagreed with previous comments that suggested the proposed changes are just a temporary fix.
“To suggest there is no way to fix it and we are just putting Band-Aids on it is shortsighted before we see the data,” Skala said. “These are some tremendous improvements here ... that go a long way to improving these trash collectors' lives on a daily basis.”
The trash and recycling collection changes will take effect Nov. 1. The requirement that all refuse be placed in city-provided bags will not be enforced until Feb. 1.
The overall budget for fiscal 2021, which begins Oct. 1, is $456.9 million. The city is estimating $411 million in revenue.
The council also voted to give Vidwest another $35,000 to fund its effort to revive Columbia Access Television and to eliminate bus and paratransit fares for another year.