PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Amid a spike in complaints about missed pickups of trash, recycling and yard waste, members of the Providence City Council are seeking to hold private contractor Waste Management accountable for its multimillion-dollar contract with the city.
City councilors grilled the leadership of Waste Management — which receives more than $7 million from city taxpayers annually — at a meeting of the Finance Committee Tuesday night, describing an influx in calls about waste not being picked up, leading to overflowing trash bins in neighborhoods.
“I’ve personally sent lists after lists of missed streets,” said Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, chair of the Finance Committee. “That is a complete and total embarrassment, as well as it being completely and totally unacceptable.”
Councilman Nicholas Narducci said he’s also seen an increase in garbage or recyclables falling to the ground during trash pickup and being left behind.
“They take off and leave the debris all over our streets,” Narducci said. “I’m sick and tired of tolerating that. If they miss the truck they should be getting out and picking up the trash that’s left behind.”
Data from the city’s 311 complaint system submitted to the council shows a significant spike in recent months, including in April of this year when yard waste pickup began.
There were 220 complaints of missed waste pickup in April 2021 compared to 45 complaints during the same month last year, and 248 in May 2021 compared to 75 last year, according to the 311 report. (The report does not include calls made to Waste Management directly.)
Missed trash pickup was the second most common complaint to the 311 system in 2020, more common than potholes and noise complaints. (Housing code issues were the most common complaint.)
Waste Management is paid $277,000 by the city per month for garbage pickup, $262,000 per month for recycling and $75,000 per month for seasonal yard waste and holiday tree pickup. The current contract calls for those payments to increase on July 1.
Jim Nocella, director of public sector solutions for Waste Management, told the councilors the company is currently experiencing a labor shortage. That, coupled with an increase in waste due to people working from home, has caused them to occasionally get behind on pickups.
“If you look across the country, one of the most severe shortages in labor has to do with CDL licensed truck drivers,” Nocella said. “We are not immune to that.”
He said the volume of waste has increased 15% to 18% during the pandemic.
“We have been asked to collect far more material than we’ve been asked to collect before,” Nocella said. “Bulk items are off the charts.” (Residents have to pre-schedule bulk item pickups with Waste Management.)
Nocella said the company is offering signing bonuses and referral incentives to try and hire more employees.
“I don’t want to hear you don’t have the manpower,” Narducci said. “Do your job.” He suggested the city look into contracting with a different waste company.
Waste Management’s contract says it can be fined $1,000 for failure to collect waste on the day of collection, and $2,500 for commingling recycling and trash — which Target 12 reported earlier this year was captured on video by a homeowner.
“Have you ever paid any fines?” Ryan asked Nocella.
“I do not recall paying any fines,” he replied.
Leo Perrotta, the director of public works, acknowledged that the Elorza administration could do more to enforce the contract.
“We could go further and fine them,” Perrotta told the councilors. “I’m not sure if it’s advisable, but we can do that.”
“We’re trying to work together as a team to get it done,” he added. “We understand their issues, we’re trying to be understanding of that. But if it gets worse, that is an option that is available to us.”
Councilman Michael Correia has introduced a nonbinding resolution for Thursday’s full council meeting asking the administration to impose the penalties in the Waste Management contract.
Ryan said Wednesday the committee will explore all options to get the company to properly fulfill its contract.
“They’re not performing,” Ryan said. “It feels like every councilperson is in the trash business. Our phones are lighting up.”
Mayor Elorza’s press secretary, Ben Smith, said the city is “committed to working together with Waste Management to ensure the best quality services for our residents.”
No fines have been levied on the company yet, Smith confirmed.