Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer
In the darkness before dawn on a recent Friday, Victor Ayres, manager of the city’s Fleet Management Department, surveyed three dozen garbage, recycling and bulk waste trucks. They had all been pulled off the road that week and could not be immediately repaired.
As a consequence, on many Houston residential streets overflowing trash and recycling bins have been sitting out for days, a constant reminder of basic city services that have yet to be carried out.
“We’re failing as a city,” said City Council Member Mike Knox, who added that his own yard waste has been awaiting pickup for so long that the biodegradable bags have begun to decompose.
But the inactivity on the streets belied the hours spent by city drivers and mechanics attempting to eliminate the backlog.
Since mid-November, when delays began in earnest, employees have clocked over 33,000 hours of overtime pay — $948,000 dollars. On a recent evening shift, mechanics stayed at the Northwest Service Center until 1 a.m. before calling it a night. Four hours later, the next shift arrived, poised for another long day of repairs.
To deal with the situation in the short run, City Council is scheduled on Tuesday to discuss whether to spend $5 million to pay a private recycling vendor to take over a quarter of the city’s recycling collection routes and to rent equipment, according to Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes. The City Council already had approved $14.6 million worth of equipment replacements, but they likely will not arrive until August.
The city’s solid waste agency has been working virtually around the clock in an attempt to keep aging garbage and recycling fleet on its scheduled routes. Over a decade of inadequate purchases means there are 15-year-old trucks on the road, while Hayes recommends replacing trucks every three to four years.
At the same time, a national shortage of truck drivers and skilled labor has left the department short-handed. Sometimes there are not enough drivers for all the trucks. Other times, the need for maintenance forces trucks to remain idle until one of the mechanics can service them. The department then has to reallocate the remaining trucks to make sure all the garbage routes are covered, which often means hours of overtime.
Walking down the line of Solid Waste vehicles pulled off of the road, Ayres rattled off their model years: 2006, 2003, 1994.
He pointed at a truck with an arm used for picking up bulk waste. “That’s from 2003, so it’s probably on its last leg,” he said. “It’s been through Hurricane Ike, the Tax Day Flood, the Memorial Day Flood and Harvey” — all times when the trucks saw greater use, leading to greater wear and a shortened life span.
Houston is one of the only major metropolitan areas in the nation that does not directly charge a fee to pick up trash and recycling. Instead, it relies on tax dollars, which Hayes said means trucks are only replaced sporadically as they compete with other priorities in the General Fund. The Fleet Management Department recommends that the city replace 25 trash and recycling trucks a year. Instead, 62 were bought in 2007, followed by over a decade of insufficient replacements. In 2008, 2013 and 2017, none were purchased.
“It’s either feast or famine,” Hayes said.
Ayres agreed. “This didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It’s been a decade in the coming.”
The result is the current triage being felt across the city.
The morning Ayres reviewed offline trucks at the Northwest Service Center, seven garbage and recycling trucks were down, leaving the center one truck short — it was shuttled in from another center. Shortly after 6 a.m., drivers began arriving. As they inspected their vehicles, dozens found issues and began to pull into the maintenance center to have them fixed before setting out on their routes. By 7 a.m., four lines had formed of trucks awaiting repairs.
Staff from across the department was called upon to help move the waiting trucks as quickly as possible. Dennis Alcorn, who usually works as a welder, busily set about replacing flat or stripped tires with tires that had been retreaded by prisoners at Huntsville Prison — a partnership Solid Waste has undertaken to save costs. “We’re a team,” Alcorn said. “It’s seven days, long hours.”
Solid Waste has been trying to recruit new hires to reduce the current staff workload But the proposal to spend millions for the help of a private recycling company underscores how difficult it has been for the city to compete with the private sector. The average base hourly rate in Solid Waste for the operator of a sideloader, the automated vehicle that picks up recycling and trash, is $18.89. The average rate for a waste collection driver nationwide, according to federal statistics, is 9 percent higher. Hayes said he’d seen an uptick in the number of workers leaving Solid Waste for the private sector.
“Walmart is paying $86,000 a year (for truck drivers),” Hayes said. Deliveries for e-commerce giants such as Amazon and the need to transport oil has also tightened demand for drivers. “National companies are stealing drivers from each other. And they rachet the prices up.”
The proposed contract with the private recycling vendor, Texas Pride Disposal Solutions, would mean temporarily paying market rate for workers while Solid Waste reconsiders its compensation and recruitment strategies.
And Hayes says that if the contracts with the private recycling vendor and equipment rental contracts go through, those services will begin Feb. 1.
It’s unclear whether Solid Waste will ultimately manage to address its worker shortage and replace its fleet on a more regular schedule. Council Member Knox said, “We’re going to have to do some serious soul searching looking at the administration of Solid Waste… This is one of our core city services.”
But Fleet Director Ayres said garbage and recycling pickup is turning a corner as resources begin to arrive. After a long drought, 2019 is a feast year for the Solid Waste fleet. Five shiny new garbage and recycling trucks recently arrived; a total of 20 are due this month and another 12 should arrive in May. The most recent order for 26 more should come in around August.
Harold Armstrong, a senior mechanic, said the new arrivals have already picked up morale. Tracey Kennard, who has worked for the City as a mechanic for 14 years, nodded his head as he fixed the tail light of a 2012 bulk waste truck.
“Glad to see them,” he said of the new trucks. “Glad to see them.”