In what they have described as a hard fiscal year for the city, Statesville officials and staff are stuck with a difficult decision: continue footing the bill for the fleet of vehicles necessary for waste collection or contract the service to a private company.
It’s almost a literal million-dollar question. City Manager Ron Smith said capital costs for the sanitation department were budgeted to be around $900,000 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Those costs included replacing the aging and often out-of-service vehicles and were in addition to the operating cost of $1.8 million.
Sanitation is currently a public service managed by the city. In the face of what Smith deems as a severely-limited budget, city staff is exploring privatizing sanitation by contracting a vendor.
“My impression of where this all started was not based on the people, not based on the operations, but based on capital,” Smith said. “We were looking at over a million in capital because a while back council had already agreed to do some leaf trucks, some yard-waste trucks that wouldn’t hit this current year’s budget but next year’s, so it was really well over a million dollars for capital in sanitation, so that’s my impression of how it started with council.”
Smith said the sanitation department’s capital needs were unusually high this year.
Statesville City Council approved a budget June 3 with a 5-3 vote that reassigned the $900,000 with some reserved in case of a desperate need in the months during the process that will decide the sanitation department’s fate.
In meetings prior to that, Councilman Michael Johnson had asked the city to explore the possibility of privatizing sanitation, including waste and leaf collection.
City staff finished a request Friday for proposals for taking over the sanitation needs of Statesville and will receive proposals for about a month, Smith said. The goal is to present options to council by Aug. 5.
“When you have a department that’s going through some angst on whether or not they’re going to have a job, we want to make sure we have a decision made or at least have the information so council can make a decision as soon as possible,” Smith said. “Those guys are worried, and I would be too.”
Smith said Sanitation Superintendent Freddie Morrison, Public Works Director Derek Slocum and City Engineer Scott Harrell have all contributed to the request for proposals to ensure all of the city’s needs are included in those.
Making a request for proposals signals to interested vendors that the city has a serious interest. Smith said any businesses wishing to apply have to put significant effort into creating a proposal.
He added that the city had struggled to find informal estimates from possible sanitation companies. Though Councilman John Staford suggested reaching out to similarly-sized municipalities like Davidson or Concord to see how much they pay for privatized sanitation, Smith said he didn’t think that was a reliable method because all municipalities have different waste collection needs.
Smith said he thought contracting sanitation services would cost about the same as it does for the city to directly employee sanitation workers. Not having to replace expensive equipment like trucks is where the city could potentially save money. That being said, a private sanitation company would still charge the city something for the wear and tear on trucks, Smith said.
"There’s always a cost to it. It just wouldn’t be a million dollars a year," Smith said. "It’s hard to say, and it may be much higher.”
Working for the sanitation department
The sanitation department came in full force to attend Monday’s council meeting. Not only had word spread about the possible end of the sanitation department, the council was also recognizing Monday as National Garbage Collector Day.
During the public comment, Fredrick Little, a motor equipment operator for the sanitation department, spoke to council. He’s worked at the department for 26 years.
“The morale within the division is already low because of the working conditions we’ve been faced with regard (to) vehicle mechanical issues and the shortage of personnel,” Little said. “Hearing that we could possibly lose our jobs in the near future has caused additional stress and anxiety to all involved.”
The sanitation employees on the street are separated into the categories of motor equipment operator, commercial driver and waste collector. Equipment operators can make between $31,000-51,100 a year. Commercial drivers make $29,500-48,700 a year, and waste collectors make $24,300-40,000 a year.
There are about 22 employees, including management, in the department.
During the summer, the employees get to work at 6 a.m. to beat the heat, and they work until the job is done. Depending on the day and whatever challenges lay ahead, the time sanitation workers are out on the road varies, but in general, they’re done by 3:30 p.m.
Every weekday, five trucks drive through Statesville, collecting residents’ waste before heading to the Iredell County Solid Waste Facility. There are three types of trucks: a fully automatic frontloader, a semiautomatic backloader, and a knuckle boom truck. Each truck requires a Class B driver’s license.
A frontloader only needs one employee who drives it. An arm collects a resident’s trashcan pulled to the curb and dumps the contents into a container on the front of the truck. When the container on the front is full, it swings over the cab and puts that trash into the larger space in the back of the truck.
Operator Craig Lawrence, a 12-year sanitation employee, said he has to be aware of wires stretched across streets to make sure the front receptacle doesn’t hit them as it swings up.
Statesville has used the frontloaders for three years. Three frontloaders are active in a day. Two collect trash and one collects recycling.
Kevin Rankin, the assistant superintendent of the department, said frontloaders tend to be slow, but because only one employee is needed, it’s cheaper to operate.
Lawrence said operators will get out of the truck to turn cans the right way, collect bags of trash on the side of the road and pull trashcans from the backyards of the elderly.
Jeff McDowell, another operator who has worked at the department for eight years, said he’ll only leave something on the curb if it’s too heavy for him to handle alone.
“If I can get it, I go ahead and do it because it’s more time if I don’t,” McDowell said. “We all want to get the job done.”
One semiautomatic backloader truck, also called a bulk truck, also collects waste. A bulk truck needs one driver and two waste collectors. They collect mattresses and other large items left on the curb that the lone frontloader operator can’t handle.
Finally, the knuckle boom truck is used to collect yard waste. It only needs one mechanical operator, but Rankin said they preferred to have a waste collector working on the knuckle boom truck too.
The operator climbs into a seat on top of the truck and controls a large claw which picks up brush on the curb and deposits it in a large bed on the back of the truck. They can also collect furniture and other house waste if there’s a large pile on the curb that waste collectors on a bulk truck couldn’t easily collect.
Little, who operates the knuckle boom truck, said spring and summer is the peak time for brush collection.
He was using an older truck Thursday because the one the department usually uses was being worked on.
Every day of the week, the frontloaders and bulk truck drive a different route, dumping between 550-600 trash bins per route and collecting anything else left for pickup. The knuckle boom truck goes where it is needed throughout the day.
When one route is finished for the day, the driver checks in with the department to see if assistance is needed on another route.
“We don’t have a lot of bickering,” Rankin said. “Out here, we work together. To do the job, you have to work together.”
Rankin said getting the job done is hard sometimes. Several of the trucks are old and need a lot of maintenance to stay functional.
“If you go two weeks without one breaking down it’s been a good month,” Rankin said.
Because waste collectors have been cut with the addition of automated frontloaders, when a frontloader can’t go on a route, the department struggles to find enough waste collectors to work in a semi-automated backloader, which runs the route instead.
Working for their community
“If you do decide to contract out our city’s solid waste service, what will happen if and when we’re hit by another Hurricane Hugo, another ice storm causes major tree damage, additional assistance is needed for snow removal, a resident has a death and needs a special trash pickup, carts and services are needed for special events, a resident has an emergency and needs loose leaves picked up from the curb? This list could go on,” Little said at Monday’s council meeting.
Several of the department’s employees talked about how they enjoyed going above and beyond to provide excellent service for their fellow community members.
“Our customers are our neighbors, friends and family members, and we go the extra mile to help. It’s not about us. It’s all about you as long as you’re with us,” Little said. “We respectfully request that you keep these thoughts in mind while deciding what is best for the citizens of Statesville. Especially since most of us are not only employees but citizens of Statesville.”
City ordinances technically don’t require waste collection if the can is blocked, turned the wrong way, the lid is too high from the top of the bin or residents don’t bring out the can in time.
Lawrence, one of the frontloader operators, moved a can from behind a car so he could pick the can up with his truck on Thursday. He said that’s a common occurrence and he gets out of his truck to move it each time.
Another frontloader operator, McDowell said if the department got a complaint about their trash can being missed, he would go back to get it.
“Nine times out of 10, we don’t miss it,” McDowell said.
Instead, people usually brought the can up late. Sometimes customers are honest and call to ask if the truck could swing around again. Usually, that’s just what the sanitation workers do.
“I get the most compliments out of that department, and it’s not that your trucks look good or you’re on time or whatever,” Smith said. “It’s that the guys go above and beyond, and that, to me, makes it difficult to look at this study in an unbiased way, but for the city residents overall, you also have to take in consideration the bottom line. It’s going to be a struggle.”
Smith said a few weeks ago, he forgot to bring one of his cans out on time. Though he didn’t call the sanitation department, he knew they would have come back to get his trash if he had, not because he was the city manager but because he was a resident of Statesville.
“I think I can speak for all the guys when I say this. We love what we do. We love our job. We love working for this great city we call Statesville,” Waste Collector Paul Cromwell said. “We love the people in the community and they love us back. They show us that every day by telling us how much they appreciate us and the hard work that we do.”