Weekly Update: How we're improving trash service citywide


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When I was sworn in as mayor two and a half years ago, I promised you that I would apply fresh eyes to the old problems of City government.

That’s exactly what we’ve done.

When we took office, it took us an average of 60 seconds to answer a 911 call. We dug in, figured out the issues, and we fixed it — we’re now consistently at 8 seconds.

When we took office, the live release rate at Memphis Animal Services was around 50 percent. We made it a priority, hired the right people to be in charge, and we fixed it — we’re now consistently at 90 percent.

When we took office, we had an antiquated system to handle people who wanted to apply to become a Memphis Police officer — which contributed to our staffing problems and public safety challenges. We cut the red tape, and now we’re much more efficient in working to rebuild our force — with the first net annual gain of police officers in seven years coming last year.

When we took office, the City had no plan or strategy to contribute funding to a need long identified for the health of our community: Pre-Kindergarten. In March, we fixed that by finding a creative way to do that without raising taxes.

At a news conference a few moments ago, I shared details about how we’re fixing a problem that’s existed for years and years — our solid waste service.

Here are three ways that it’s broken:

  • First, you saw the news yesterday afternoon about how we’re ending our contract with Inland Waste. Just some context on that before I go on: Eighty percent of our city is serviced by City solid waste employees. Twenty percent of the city — areas like Cordova and Hickory Hill — is serviced by a contractor, which is currently Inland Waste. Four years ago, when the City bid out that contract, Inland won it — but has since underperformed. As a result, we’ve had large-scale backlogs and service lapses in these contracted areas. 

    Though the contract runs through next June, the level of service that we are delivering to our citizens through Inland remains unacceptable. So as you already know, I informed Inland yesterday that I am invoking a clause in our contract that allows us to end it within 30 days. We have given Waste Pro, a new contractor, the notice to proceed to fill the remainder of the Inland contract, and we’ll be putting the long-term contract out for bid later this year. Inland is contractually required to continue service for the next 30 days.

  • No. 2, although we are 99.6 percent accurate in picking up trash inside the cans, we’re nowhere near that with curbside trash — items like yard waste, for instance. Our process for curbside trash is this: Call 311 to let us know it’s there, and we have 21 days to come pick it up. Not many of you know that requirement, and even if you do, you’re not that happy about it sitting on the curb for three weeks. Neither are we. Even more, we’re only about 60 to 65 percent accurate in collecting that waste even within those 21 days. Why? We’re 76 employees and two dozen pieces of equipment short of what’s needed to deliver better service than that 21-day time frame. These shortages were there to facilitate a cost-cutting measure from many years back that brought in this 21-day time frame. We don’t think that’s a good level of service, and I know citizens don’t, either.

  • And No. 3, Solid Waste is a 500-plus employee operation of our Division of Public Works, which has 1,300-plus employees total and a wide range of responsibilities — from sewers to street paving and seemingly everything in between. Yet, Solid Waste impacts close to 200,000 of our households on a weekly basis, and accounts for three out of every four calls to our 311 system.

So you already know we’re changing contractors. Here’s how we’ll fix the other two items:

  • We are ramping up staffing and rebuilding our equipment fleet. Late last month, we posted job ads for most of those vacant positions and hope to start having those new employees on board in the coming weeks. We placed orders for the equipment we’re lacking, and are making arrangements to lease that equipment until the new equipment comes. Once all of this comes together, likely by October, we’ll have the necessary people and equipment to pick up garbage outside the cart — that’s yard waste, most of the time — every other week, and without having to call 311.

  • We’re proposing the reinstatement of a division of City government — the Division of Solid Waste. This was how it was years ago, before the division was folded under Public Works. This will allow division leadership to focus every single day on improving our solid waste services, along with allowing Public Works to increase its focus on other areas where we deliver service to citizens.

So, how are we going to pay for it? I’ll be proposing to the City Council a one-time transfer from general fund reserves to pay for everything I just told you. Once all the components are implemented, this could be anywhere from $6 to $15 million from our general fund reserves — which today total roughly $90 million.

We are not proposing a rate increase. We may well have to do that in the future, but we want a year or so of seeing how our new model works and exactly what it costs. Plus, we also want to charge the leadership of our new Division of Solid Waste with finding more efficiencies that we may not have identified just yet. I didn’t feel it was right to ask citizens to pay more when we haven’t yet tried to identify every efficiency possible in our system.

It’s important to know this: We need the help of our citizens to make this work, in two ways: 1) your patience as we transition to this better level of service, as it won’t happen overnight; and 2) your cooperation in bringing outside-of-the-cart-type items like yard waste out only every other week. Before this goes into effect in October, we’ll be communicating the particulars, so stay tuned.

We’ll be presenting this to the council Tuesday. We'll be working hand-in-hand with council members to gain approval for 1) the creation of the new division, and 2) the way we plan to pay for these changes. I look forward to the dialogue.

I'll send thank-yous right now to:

  • Council members, who have been receptive as we’ve been sharing details about this in recent days;
  • Public Works leadership and Solid Waste Department leadership and employees, who have been incredibly helpful in sharing ideas and identifying areas for opportunities;
  • Doug McGowen and especially Patrice Thomas of our team, who dug in and did the hard work to fix this.

I know it’s easy to view this as just a piece of process, but I believe fixing what’s broken in our city goes to serve our greater vision. We are committed at City government to improving core City services, which will enable even more momentum in our city. We must continue to lay this foundation of improved services, increased public safety, and policies that focus on growth in our core and our neighborhoods for us to realize the Memphis we all want.


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