Cortez Hunter gave up being a long-haul semi driver to work locally and spend more time with his family, but due to a shortage of garbage trucks in Mobile, those long hours associated with life on the road have returned.
In about two and a half years in his previous job, Hunter visited all 48 contiguous states, but long stretches away from his family wore on him, the 28-year-old husband and father of six said. Having already obtained the needed commercial driver’s license, he jumped at a chance to work in garbage collection for the city’s Public Works department almost three years ago.
But today, the backlog of work caused by malfunctioning trucks is taking its toll on Hunter and other drivers. With only nine of 27 trucks available on any given day, many of the department’s 18 daily routes get missed.
A missed route means working on scheduled off days, Hunter said. In addition to about 11 to 12 hours on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, drivers routinely come in to work shifts on Wednesday and Saturday to catch up on collections missed earlier in the week. A catch-up day means overtime for drivers, but it also means canceled plans and missed family time.
“It throws everyone off,” he said of working on scheduled off days. “It throws my wife off balance. We have to plan something late Saturday, or early Sunday.”
Hunter said while the schedule leaves his wife’s hands full, he’s happy it still allows him to watch his sons play football, as their games take place on Saturday nights. His church attendance, on the other hand, is a little less than reverent some weeks.
“I go if I’m not too tired,” he said. “It’s such a quick turnaround. These trucks will wear you out.”
During a ride-along with a newspaper reporter earlier this week, Hunter said he has a truck break down “once or twice every two weeks or so.” For the fleet as a whole, it’s much more common, he said.
“There’s a truck that goes down every day,” he said. “There were four or five that went down Friday alone.”
In all, 18 trucks were unavailable Monday morning. Acting Crew Chief Michael Beech said only nine trucks were available to pick up 18 routes. Problems for the existing fleet range from hydraulic leaks to engine repairs and one truck even has fire damage, Beech said.
“In a perfect world, we’d have a truck for each route and four or five extra trucks,” he said, adding that in a pinch, 16 functional trucks could get the job done on time every week.
The problem with the trucks is age, Beech said. The fleet includes 12 trucks that are double their useful life at 10 years old. Those automated trucks, which require one driver/crewman, uses a hydraulic claw to pick up the 95-gallon trash cans from the curb. In 2004 and 2005, those trucks were purchased through efforts of the Mike Dow administration, Beech said.
According to archives, Dow proposed a switch to the automated trucks over traditional, three-man-crew manual trucks to save money on personnel costs as the city moved from collecting gross receipts tax in favor of sales tax. At the time, a city purchasing agent said the trucks cost $111,713 each. Just 10 years later the trucks, which are made to order and assembled in separate American factories, cost nearly three times as much.
The department also has older trucks, called rear-loaders, that are still in use downtown and on one-way streets. Those trucks still require manual loading and additional crew, but tend to break down less frequently, Beech said.
On Monday, Hunter was scheduled to pick up about 1,100 cans on his route beginning off Howells Ferry Road in West Mobile. That route length is common for drivers in Mobile, Beech said, while the national average is about 650 cans per route.
As Hunter pulled up to his first can of the day and positioned the automated claw to pick it up, a broken line began to spew hydraulic fluid onto the asphalt. Hunter explained the issue was probably a “quick fix,” but it would still set him back. He waited for Public Works Supervisor Eddie Armstead to pull up in another vehicle and examine the damage, while a cleanup team arrived shortly thereafter.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration and Mobile City Council members say they’re willing to work together to find money for new trucks, although funding for the equipment is not specifically addressed in his 2015-2016 budget proposal, which was delivered to the City Council last week.
Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch blamed the shortage partially on money being taken out of the city’s motor pool and transferred into the General Fund from 2001 to 2010. On three separate occasions during that time, Wesch said, the city transferred a total of $8 million out of the fund used for repair and replacement of vehicles.
The motor pool generates revenue by leasing the city’s vehicle fleet to the respective departments through payments called lease rates. These lease rates would be taken out of each department’s budget every year.
“So, when this administration arrived, we found not only inadequate lease rates [but also] no capital in the motor pool to regularly purchase vehicles,” Wesch said. “That really allowed the fleets in all those departments to get a whole lot older.”
Starting with this year’s budget proposal, Wesch said, lease rates will be going back into the motor pool.
Some councilors have argued the administration could use part of the $3.2 million set-aside for police cars in the budget proposal for garbage trucks, especially since the city purchased another group of cruisers just last year.
Wesch said police cars were a priority a year and a half ago because some of the vehicles in their fleet were old enough to qualify for antique plates.
“They were over 25 years old and still being run on the streets,” Wesch said.
Among the possible solutions would be imposing a fee for garbage collection. Beech said the department brought in $1.4 million in one year through a $4-per-month fee attached to Mobile Area Water and Sewer System bills 12 years ago. The charge was dropped after about a year because of what Wesch called an accounting “disaster.”
One problem with the fee collection was attaching it to water bills collected by an independent agency like MAWSS. Wesch said customers would simply mark out the garbage portion of the bill and pay for the water, because many recognized MAWSS had no authority to enforce it.
“You have to have the city set up the billing and collection vehicle, or have the county do it on the annual property tax bill, or something of that nature,” Wesch said. “It has not been discussed, but we’re about the only city of any size that doesn’t collect a garbage fee.”
In cities where a fee is assessed, those that have paid may receive an annual sticker to affix to the side of their garbage cans. If the sticker is not present, their garbage will not be collected.
Another solution is privatizing collection. While the idea has been considered by members of the administration, there are no current plans to act upon it. In a recent finance committee meeting, Councilman Fred Richardson accused the administration of “manufacturing a crisis” in order to move to privatization, but Wesch called that “categorically false.”
“We are not going to get out of this current issue with privatization,” Wesch said. “That’s just not where the administration is going.”