After more than an hour of questioning and explanations Tuesday, members of the Fort Wayne City Council remain dissatisfied with the level of service provided by Red River Waste Solutions, the city's new garbage collection contractor.
Throughout a testy exchange, all nine City Council members peppered the contractor with questions on the high volume of complaints they've received about repeated missed collections. Several councilmen trashed the Texas-based firm over the quality of its service so far.
Although few solutions were offered Tuesday by representatives from Red River, the councilmen made it clear they expect better of the company and would not tolerate any more major service issues.
Moving forward, Red River is expected to provide documentation, at the behest of Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, of their services so the council can track whether service is improving.
“Service has been bad, but the perception of service is God-awful,” Councilman John Crawford said.
Red River was fined $65,000 recently, $15,000 in April and $50,000 in May, for missing service benchmarks outlined in its contract. Over the course of 2017, Republic Services was fined a total of $98,000.
Officials with the city and Red River cited a national truck driver shortage, odd neighborhood routes involving alleys and side streets, high volumes of yard waste and challenges over the Memorial Day weekend to explain the upswing in complaints over the past two months.
Red River also expected 70 percent of the garbage truck drivers who had worked for Republic to switch to Red River after the contract was awarded. Only about 30 percent made the switch, Steve Smith, Red River's vice president of business development, told the council.
To rectify that, Smith said the company pulled in drivers from other areas to assist with the shortage and is working on hiring and training qualified commercial drivers license holders to handle the routes.
Smith said he expects to be able to provide tangible results by next month.
Complaints skyrocketed early this year after Red River took over the contract from Republic Services, Fort Wayne's longtime garbage collection contractor. At that time, company representatives cited the winter holidays, drivers unfamiliar with the territory and harsh weather as contributing to the difficulty. Red River's contract began Jan. 2.
As the discussion turned toward what recourse is possible if Red River continues to fail to live up to the expectations of the council and its constituents, it became clear that simply ditching the company and going with another firm might not be a viable option.
The Board of Public Works could decide to terminate the contract if it believes Red River is in material default of its terms, Associate City Attorney Malak Heiny said. However, the contract does not spell out what is considered a material default. That means a court would have to determine whether the city's claims rise to the level necessary to terminate the contract.
If a court were to rule in favor of Red River, Heiny said that could make the city liable for damages the contractor incurred during the legal process.
To hold Red River accountable moving forward, Crawford instructed Smith to create a dashboard of statistics that council members can use to track whether improvements are being made and whether service has improved. Crawford said he expects the first of those documents to be delivered to council and the media next week, followed by regular updates thereafter.
Some of the information Crawford said he wants in the company's report includes the number of pickups done in a month; how many homes were missed; how many times an entire block was missed; whether a resident forgot to put out their trash can; how long it took to rectify a missed collection; and other indicators.
“You have lost the trust of Fort Wayne's citizens, and you will have to earn it back,” Crawford said. “The only way you're going to earn it back is to prove to them that your service has gotten better with data.”
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday's meeting, Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, had harsh words for Red River. The company, Jehl said, had an opportunity to “buy a lot of goodwill” with Fort Wayne residents by offering credit to those who have been missed repeatedly but failed to do so.
“They are receiving full payment from the city even though they are not performing. We asked them if they would provide our constituents a credit back and they declined to,” Jehl said. “I am disappointed they have decided not to purchase goodwill with our ratepayers and have decided to stay the villains and simply ask us to continue to accept the status quo, which is not acceptable.”
However, Red River is not required under its contract to provide refunds for residents who have been missed.
Additionally, the city has never offered ratepayers credits for missed collections in the past, said Matt Gratz, the city's solid waste manager. Fines levied against the contractor are put into the city's Solid Waste Fund, which is used to supplement future costs to avoid rate increases down the line.
Jehl said all he heard Tuesday night was further excuses for poor performance and no real information about how the firm plans to improve its operations.
“They came in with another set of sob stories, acting like they didn't know Memorial Day was going to happen – I think that was on the calendar when they took the contract – along with a series of other excuses that we heard back in February,” Jehl said. “Tonight they were hoping to get away with a series of further excuses.”
If some City Council members left Tuesday's meeting wondering what, if any, solutions were agreed upon, Smith had a different perception.
“I think for the most part, our staffing and hiring up drivers and hiring up service techs is the (solution), and we've been doing that,” Smith said. “We have our pipeline full of eligible applicants and drivers, and we're training those folks up, so we've seen a rapid increase in service and decrease in calls over the last two to three weeks.”
Smith said he appreciates residents' patience and encouraged residents who are being missed to contact the city's 311 call center.
During the week of the July 4 holiday, residents whose trash is typically picked up Wednesday through the end of the week will have their garbage collected one day later than usual, Smith said.