Kansas City municipal government says it’s sorry for serious delays in trash collection that have led to a crescendo of complaints this summer, especially in the southern part of the city.
“The City of Kansas City apologizes for the problems with trash and recycling collections, and wants to assure our residents that we will resolve these problems as soon as possible,” city spokesman Chris Hernandez said in a statement shared late Tuesday with multiple city neighborhoods.
The statement noted that the problem is associated with the part of the city served by Town & Country, now owned by WCA Waste Corp. That vendor serves the area south of 63rd Street to the southern city limits. The central part of the city, from the Missouri River to 63rd Street, is served by municipal crews. The Northland is served by Jim’s Disposal Service as a subcontractor to WCA. Those areas of the city have not had the same level of problems.
Kansas City is not alone in suffering through trash collection problems, which have plagued metro area suburbs as well.
WCA acquired Town & Country last October and shortly after that suffered a serious driver shortage that has contributed to significant trash and recycling collection delays.
Problems at Town & Country and rival Deffenbaugh spread through several markets this summer, leading to apology letters to residents and meetings with various city officials.
Fairway residents continue to see service problems under that city’s contract with Town & Country, city administrator Kathy Axelson said Wednesday.
“Our residents have been pretty frustrated,” Axelson said.
As yet, Fairway has not deducted payments to Town & Country for misses, but it has that option. Town & Country’s contract runs through the end of next year.
Deffenbaugh continues to “miss whole neighborhoods” in Lansing some weeks, finance director Beth Sanford said. She said the city has billed the company for missed service but hasn’t gotten a response.
Earlier this month, Prairie Village opted to hire Republic Services for trash, recycling and yard waste pickup for its roughly 8,400 residences after years of service from Deffenbaugh. Recent service problems with Deffenbaugh contributed to the switch.
“We’ve been OK,” said Edwin Birch, spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., which provides service for the county and city through a long-term contract with Deffenbaugh.
The municipality used some of its own trucks and employees to help Deffenbaugh catch up when service fell behind in early June. Deffenbaugh had been billed for the help, and Birch said the company has had no problems since then other than “a little hiccup” late last week.
Overland Park doesn’t contract with any company; residents do that individually. Still, the city got some calls and emails about service problems earlier this summer, but those have “virtually disappeared,” Sean Reilly in the city manager’s office said. Reilly noted, however, that his own recycle bin was missed Tuesday, though his trash did get picked up.
Complaints in Lee’s Summit, which largely came from Town & Country customers earlier this summer, have grown quieter and more isolated, city officials said.
In Kansas City, service problems have contributed to as many as 700 complaints in a week from some routes where trash was picked up hours or even days late, said Michael Shaw, solid waste manager for Kansas City municipal government.
WCA spokesman Tom Coffman explained that a federal Department of Transportation audit late last year determined that more than 50 percent of Town & Country’s drivers were not DOT qualified. He said some of those drivers either failed or refused to take a drug test, while others weren’t physically fit or had problematic driving records. That affected 30 to 40 drivers in the Kansas City area market, he said.
In addition, during the spring, new technology was installed and WCA determined some drivers weren’t meeting its safety standards, Coffman said.
“There’s a commercial driver shortage nationally, and we’re certainly not immune to that,” he said.
Shaw said that delayed trash, recycling and leaf and brush pickup has been evident off and on from last fall through this summer.
In the past, city crews would try to make up collections that private vendors missed, but the city also has had some staff shortages and wasn’t always able to promptly address customer complaints.
“So it’s not as easy for me to mask their problems,” Shaw said.
Steve Kelly is one Kansas City resident who has experienced the problems first-hand. He lives on West 86th Street in Ward Parkway Estates and said trash collection has been an off-and-on problem since last fall. His normal trash day is Thursday, but it wasn’t picked up Aug. 11. Even after repeated calls to the city, it still hadn’t been picked up by the following Tuesday, Aug. 16. Finally, it got picked up at 6 p.m. that night.
Kelly said this past Thursday, Aug. 18, it was picked up on time, so he’s waiting to see what happens going forward.
WCA has a lucrative contract with the city, totaling roughly $5 million annually to cover south Kansas City.
Shaw said the city has assessed significant fines and reduced payments to hold the company accountable, although he didn’t have the monetary amount.
“We are taking affirmative steps to get this corrected at their expense,” Shaw said. “Money talks.”
He said the city could cancel the contract and rebid it for noncompliance, but he would rather the company get its act together than have the city try to break in yet another contractor.
John Murphy, vice president of the Armour Fields Home Association, said he believes the reason the city is apologizing is because it has been embarrassed by local media coverage.
“It’s too little and too late,” he said of the city’s statement.
The association, which includes the neighborhoods in an area bounded by 65th Street to the north, Gregory Boulevard to the south, Wornall Road to the east and Ward Parkway to the west, is in the part of the city served by Town & Country and started noticing a problem with trash pickups at the end of June or the beginning of July.
“They (trash bags) would be sitting on the curbs for a couple of days,” Murphy said. “One week, they sat there for 10 straight days.”
Murphy said he sent emails complaining about the trash pickups to the city’s 311 City Action Center and city leaders. A council member responded that the city was aware of the problem and it was frustrating, but there wasn’t much the city could do.
When he finally had enough, Murphy said, he reached out to WCA and eventually met with two local company officials who explained the difficulties the company was having.
Murphy suggested they bring in workers from other regions to help. He also put them in touch with the Urban League of Greater Kansas City to help them with the hiring of drivers.
“My frustration is why isn’t the council, why isn’t the city manager making these (expletive) calls?” Murphy said.
WCA has reached out, said Gwen Grant, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. In the short term, the company will participate in the upcoming Urban Neighborhood Initiative and Urban League of Kansas City Hiring Fair, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 20 at St. James United Methodist Church at 56th Street and the Paseo.
The Urban League will also work with the company to develop a training program to help people receive their commercial driver’s licenses so they can drive the trucks.
Although the trash pickups have improved the last two weeks, Murphy sees the city’s lack of action on the issue as a continuation of an ongoing trend where city services are being shunted to homes associations — such as the removal of snow, maintenance of city-owned parks and islands in neighborhoods, and security patrols.
“All this stuff is to be paid for by local government, and they are taking taxes from us, but they aren’t doing any of this stuff,” he said.
Coffman said WCA is making progress in fixing the problem. For a while, it brought drivers in from out of town to help out temporarily. It has hired a full-time recruiter, increased wages and now offers health insurance and a 401(k) plan as a hiring incentive.
“Now, that’s starting to pay dividends,” Coffman said, adding that the company still needs to fill about a half-dozen more driver positions.
It takes about six to eight weeks to get a driver trained, so Coffman said conditions should improve significantly soon.
“I think that the customer service experience and collections in the fall will be vastly and noticeably different than the customer experience this summer,” he said.
Shaw, too, said he hopes conditions will show significant improvement in the next 30 to 45 days.