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As trash piles up, St. Louis department cites lack of trucks and overworked staff

Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Aging trash trucks, overworked staff and uncollected trash were just some of the complaints heard by Alderman on the Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee during a public hearing Tuesday.

St. Louis aldermen on the Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee held a hearing Tuesday to discuss the ongoing issues surrounding uncollected residential trash in the city.

For weeks, residents have voiced their frustrations on social media and to their aldermen that the trash in their dumpsters has gone uncollected for weeks at a time.

Jamie Wilson, the director of the city’s Department of Streets, said he’s well aware of the issue. He pointed to a combination of an aging fleet of trucks — not enough which are operable to meet demand — and an overworked staff.

“Traditionally, a lot of our problems are with our older vehicles, if they’re the 18-year-old versions of our refuse trucks,” Wilson said. “Those are the harder ones to fix and keep in the road once they are fixed.”

In July 2017, the city approved a $3-fee increase for trash services in the city in order to upgrade the entire fleet of trucks over the next 10 years.

Wilson said so far this year 16 new trucks have hit the streets, and the department expects an additional 15 by the end of the year. But he admits even those new trucks have had some operational problems with the heavy lifting and navigating through alleys, some of which have potholes and other issues. Eventually, the department will have 76 new trucks.

Annually, the department collects 140,000 tons of solid waste, or traditional trash, per year. The department operates its trash-collection services on 55 routes throughout the city — 42 of which are in alleys, and 13 with traditional roll-out carts. Wilson said historically the department has collected trash in alleys on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and the carts on a five-day collection cycle.

But even with 84 trucks and 69 drivers, Wilson said they’re struggling to keep up with 55 routes. That’s because there aren’t enough trucks for the drivers. As a result, many city refuse workers' shifts have been extended into the early and late hours of the day to keep the limited number of trucks going longer.

“Our drivers have been working extended hours — late hours, early hours,” Wilson said. “Really taking a sacrifice on their personal lives to perform these collections so we can get these new trucks in, so our fleet can be upgraded. It’s not for a lack of effort that these collections may have been missed.”

Yet Eric Wisner, a city refuse operator, said there’s a lack of “accountability, sensibility and efficiency” within the department that needs to change.

“If it creates work for somebody, nobody wants to make the changes that are necessary,” Wisner said. “We are grossly underpaid. Obviously, the division is underfunded. We don’t have the equipment to operate, and they continuously expect us to do more with less and make the demand on us.”

Both aging trucks and overworked staff have been ongoing issues. Several aldermen, including Jack Coatar, D-7th Ward, voiced concerns about the route-pickup discrepancies within neighborhoods.

“In Soulard, for example, I’m experiencing huge issues with trash pickup, and then across Gravois and McKinley Heights, I have next to no complaints and service seems fine over there,” Coatar said.

Wilson said much of that still has to do with the lack of trucks.

Committee Chairman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, recommended a trash task force. It’s unclear if or when it will be put in place.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.