Detroiters Seem Satisfied With First Weeks Of Privatized Garbage Collection

Monday, June 30, 2014

By Daniel Long

This story aired on June 30, 2014.

The push to privatize Detroit’s garbage pick-up was already underway when Mayor Mike Duggan took office in January. But, after the city council voted in favor of privatization a few weeks later, it became an issue the mayor had to deal with. Now that the contracts have been handed out, WDETs Daniel Long takes a look at what residents are saying about Detroit’s garbage collection.

When he first took office, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan got a crash course in the condition of the city’s public works department. While the rest of southeast Michigan was learning about the severe cold caused by polar vortices, the mayor was dealing with the city’s garbage collection, which was running a week behind. Duggan reflected on the situation shortly after taking office.

“Here’s the story they tell me, ‘We are 130-thousand households behind in collecting the trash on Saturday morning -- from where we would be – because the snow had made it so difficult to get down the road. And, we got another foot of snow coming the next day.”

The frequency with which garbage collection falls behind schedule is something Detroiters say has been a year-round problem, not just during snowstorms. West-sider John Wilson says he was often frustrated not knowing whether his garbage would be picked-up at all.

“They didn’t come half the time but when they did come they was late, might come 11-o’clock at night. Stuff was piled up, you know. But, now with the new system, it seems to be working a lot better.”

Residents I spoke with from neighborhoods in southwest Detroit and on the east side share Wilson’s sentiment. They say pick-up has improved since the private service began in early-May. In some cases…there was confusion about changes in collection days…and some were not prepared for the earlier-than-normal-pick-up times. Detroiter Precious Davis says she appreciates the additional bulk-pick-up days that the new contracts provide.

“We only had bulk-day what three times a year? Yeah, and that wasn’t very nice, you know. So, you had to keep the old furniture and like old chairs and stuff at your house for a long time. And see now, you can get it out your house faster. Like today, our bulk day came today.

Other residents hope that increasing the number of bulk-pick-up days will put a dent in illegal dumping. But, while most folks say they’re satisfied with the new service…there are concerns about the effects of privatizing municipal jobs. Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield says she voted against privatization because it leaves the city with fewer options for the future.

“It takes us down a path of no return as far as the city being able to provide waste service collection in the future. We’re going to be auctioning off our vehicles, we won’t have the personal capacity to really in the future to go back into the business of garbage collection, and to me that was a concern.”

Another issue Sheffield raises is one echoed by many residents when asked about privatizing the city’s garbage service...“What happens to Detroit Public Works employees?”

Teamsters Local 214 represented the 180-plus D-P-W employees affected by privatization. The union’s Vice-President - Joe Valenti - says the good news for Local 214 is that some of the workers will remain on the city’s payroll.

“Right now D-P-W is maintaining an illegal dumping crew, which the most senior people obviously would be able to stay with the city of Detroit with the illegal dumping crew. The number that we have kind of right now is around 51-to-55.”

Valenti says job fairs were held for laid-off D-P-W employees. He says the two private companies that won garbage contracts -- Rizzo Environmental Service…and Advanced Disposal -- attended the events.

Valenti says about 70 former D-P-W employees transitioned to the Teamster’s local at Advanced Disposal. But he says only 10-15 workers were hired at Rizzo, a company Valenti says has no union contracts.

The president of Government Affairs and Public Relations for Rizzo Environmental Services is Joe Munem. He says he doesn’t know the exact number of former DPW workers brought on board at the company, but maintains they were provided an opportunity.

“We did attend the job fairs and made the offers to those employees and we absolutely did give priority to the ones that were interested in coming over. I mean clearly there’s an advantage to having those employees come over because they’re familiar with the routes.”

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield says she hopes privatizing Detroit’s garbage collection doesn’t come back to haunt the city…even while the new program seems to be a success.

“It was definitely a hard, tough choice I think the city had to make. Overall, like I said, I think that the service of garbage collection in the city of Detroit has improved. And, I’m just hoping that after the five years we can maybe reconsider providing garbage collection here in the city again.”

There are opt-out provisions in the contract that give Detroit the ability to re-take control of collection service in the future. But both Sheffield and Valenti say without the equipment needed to pick-up the garbage, Detroit will be at the mercy of outside contractors.

While the decision to privatize Detroit’s garbage collection was controversial, it’s now a reality, at least for the next five years. And in the first few weeks, residents seem satisfied with the change of service providers.

Find more coverage of Detroit's bankruptcy and its impact on people and neighborhoods on WDET's Next Chapter Detroit blog.

Powered by The Detroit Journalism Cooperative with support from The James L. Knight Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative.