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Frustration mounts over trash pick-up

JACKSON – Concerns over inconsistent trash collection in Northampton County prompted a special called meeting of the county commissioners here Thursday evening.

Following an hour-plus of discussion with two staff members of GFL Environmental (who holds the contract to collect household garbage in the county) the commissioners opted to develop a better communications strategy with the company when there are delays in trash collection.

The $2.05 million annual contract between GFL Environmental (formerly Waste Industries, LLC) and Northampton County Local Government provides weekly collection of roll-out containers for approximately 10,500 customers.

As recent as last week, those collections were either not made or were delayed by 24-to-48 hours.

At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, Commission Chairman Charles Tyner said the letters, phone calls, and emails the county has received from its citizens about sporadic trash pick-up was of great concern to the commissioners.

“We’ve heard your cries; we’ve gotten your letters and phone calls. We need a clearer understanding of the problems we’ve been having with trash pick-up,” Tyner said. “We’ve heard of very unreliable [collection] schedules; most concerns are on the eastern end of the county.”

County Manager Charles Jackson said citizens want to know why these issues are occurring.

“They and we understand there are [GFL] staffing issues sometimes and [mechanical] breakdowns [with GFL],” he stated. “What they and we are asking for is an open line of communication; notification in advance of any changes in service. We provide a service that our citizens are paying for. They want answers when that service is interrupted for whatever reason.”

Tyner said he understood delays when they are weather related, but what was puzzling to him is when that service isn’t immediately restored after a storm has cleared and the roads are clear. He stated he knew of at least one situation where trash pick-up at a residence was missed for several weeks.

“Our citizens pay for this service and they’re not going to continue to pay for a service they’re not getting,” Tyner proclaimed in a stern voice. “We’re frustrated now over the service we’re getting. We want to know, for all to understand, what the rules are about trash pick-up. We need to know if you can’t pick up trash in a scheduled area on a scheduled day, what needs to be done to notify those citizens about that delay. Does the county need to send out an alert?”

GFL Environmental was represented at the meeting by Christopher Williams, General Manager, and Pat Luce, Government Contracts Manager. Williams said there had been some mechanical breakdowns that caused some delays, but added that Northampton Public Works was notified about those delays and what roads were impacted.

That claim was later verified by Kirk Rogers, the county’s Public Works Director, but he added the notification typically came at the end of the day, which was too late to address with the citizens who were impacted.

Williams added that when there is a delay, the trash is typically collected first thing the next morning before that day’s normal route begins.

“We have not had many issues until last week,” Williams stated.

Williams also mentioned the impact that COVID-19 has had on his company.

“We’ve worked with partial staff; we had four [workers] out last week,” he noted, adding that the virus also caused delays in the supply chain when ordering parts to repair the company’s fleet of service vehicles.

To address the manpower issue, Williams said GFL hired new personnel, but some did not make it past the company’s 90-day probationary period.

“We realize the need to be fully staffed,” Williams said. “We’ve had helped internally with trucks/staff coming to help us out from our Elizabeth City and Williamston branches. We have a back-up plan.

“We’re doing what we can to resolve the issues and we sympathize with you and your citizens,” he added.

As far as communicating delays with citizens, Williams said his company does not have phone numbers for the collection points along each route.

“All we have is addresses,” he observed. “You [county officials] have the means to do a phone blast if a pick-up route is delayed. Is that something you guys can provide?”

“Our frustration comes when our citizens contact us constantly and we have no answers,” he stressed.

Williams again talked about the rarity of problems with service.

“Last week was an anomaly,” he remarked. “We’ve been doing business with Northampton County since 2007 and it’s never been like it was last week. What happened is unacceptable on our part; if trash is not collected on its normal day, it’s done so by the morning of the next day.”

Commissioner Nicole Boone said she viewed the problem as a “communications issue.”

“Is there a public service line that citizens can call for updates,” Boone asked. “Is there a link on your company’s website to check for changes in pick-up times?

If not, Boone suggested changes to the way GFL communicates with its customers.

“We understand the short staff issue. Just a courtesy call to our county manager our public works director about delays will greatly help,” she stressed. “We then can notify our citizens about the delays; we can use our county website, we can make phone calls…anything to let them know that their trash pick-up is delayed. That’s just a common courtesy.”

There was other discussion about different issues concerning trash pick-up throughout the county, but in the end it all came back to finding a solution to the communication issue between GFL and the county.

The commissioners suggested that Williams put together a press release and a Q & A sheet that outlined the company’s services and weekly schedule.

“We need to get that information into the hands of our citizens,” Tyner said. “They need to know the day of their pick-up. If it’s not done by the next day, then they need to have a number they can call. And that [call] doesn’t need to go to Kirk [Rogers].”

“We’ll leave this in the hands of our county manager and Mr. Williams to work out and ask for an update at our next scheduled meeting,” Tyner closed.

Northampton’s contract with GFL Environmental was extended by four years in July of 2019. It expires on June 30, 2023.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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