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Officials highly critical of trash-hauling companies

LOS ANGELES — Multiple Los Angeles City Council members trashed the city’s new commercial waste-hauling system last week, publicly grilling representatives of the companies that have been contracted to operate the six-month-old RecycLA program that has been rife with problems.

“I could not possibly care less how hard it is for you to make this transition. I could not possibly care less,” Councilman Paul Krekorian told some service provider representatives during a meeting of the Energy, Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee Feb. 6 after they repeatedly said that the transition to the new program had been challenging.

Before the six-hour-plus meeting, Councilmen Mitch O’Farrell and Mike Bonin held a news conference at City Hall to demand improvements to the program and shared the podium with some business and property owners who have been negatively affected by RecycLA and spoke of skyrocketing trash bills amid a plummeting quality of service.

“I was so stupefied that it was such a disastrous rollout,” O’Farrell said. “I was given assurances, I can’t tell you how many times I had meetings in my office, requesting assurances that this would be successful.”

The franchise waste hauling system was unanimously approved by the City Council in late 2016 and became operational July 1, 2017, with the goal of expanding recycling opportunities to thousands of businesses and apartment buildings while also cutting down on pollution by reducing the number of trucks on the street and requiring service providers to transition to low-emission trucks.

Seven companies handle an estimated $3.5 billion in commercial waste hauling in Los Angeles under RecycLA. Each company is assigned as the sole trash hauler for commercial sites and multi-family complexes in one or more of the city’s 11 zones.

Problems in the RecycLA system started shortly after it became active, including some customers reporting missed service calls and bills that doubled, tripled or quadrupled. O’Farrell said he did not think that contracts needed to be canceled or legal action needed to be taken yet, but suggested it could soon be an option.

“I am very open to having everything on the table to look at this contract. We’re not there yet, but we wanted to make a statement that this must be fixed,” O’Farrell said.

A long line of RecycLA customers told committee members horror stories of terrible service or rates that suddenly increased by hundreds or thousands of dollars.

At the end of the meeting, several pages of recommendations and requests for reports were issued by the committee that would deliver it a comprehensive analysis of the program, along with a request for advice from City Attorney Mike Feuer on legal options the city can take against companies failing the meet the requirements of their contract.

According to the Bureau of Sanitation, there have been more than 28,000 calls connected to missed service pickups from July 2017 through the end of January. But since each service provider has essentially been handed a monopoly, customers do not have a choice to seek out a better or cheaper service.

During the committee meeting, some representatives of the service providers said the transition was difficult in part because they ended up with many more customers than they had been told they would have.

“This is a huge undertaking that we have undertaken, in only 180 days to transition moving kind of quickly,” said Matt Blackburn, vice president of Universal Waste.

Blackburn, as did other providers, stressed that the number of complaints have been very low overall, with his company having a 99.5 percent success rate.

Susanne Passantino, a manager with Republic Services, said “there were a lot of challenges as it rolled out and every single day our goal is to optimize our services with our customers and work through billing disputes.”

However, the statements of the service providers mostly fell on unsympathetic ears on the committee.

“You have been granted an exclusive franchise in your areas. You were given five years to do the due diligence that you needed to do to prepare,” Krekorian said. “Yes it’s hard. Yes, this is a big city,” he added. “But you know what? You’re getting the revenues from a big city as well. You grabbed the brass ring and became the winning bidders on exclusive franchises in the second biggest city in America.’”

Councilwoman Nury Martinez said “I heard a lot of excuses today and I am not interested in any more excuses. I’m here to simply say you will be held accountable for this contract. You are going to make a lot of money from this.”

Bonin and O’Farrell introduced a motion in December that instructed the Bureau of Sanitation to provide a comprehensive report on the problems with RecycLA, and the report was discussed at the committee meeting.

Two other City Council motions are also addressed in the report, including one from Councilman Paul Koretz and O’Farrell that directs the Bureau of Sanitation to report if certain RecycLA service providers have failed to fulfill their obligations, and whether to proceed with taking the necessary steps to terminate their individual contracts “for such substantial failure.”

The meeting came just days after the Feb. 1 deadline when service providers can be fined for poor service or have their contracts canceled.

While the report does not recommend canceling any contracts, it does note that service providers can now be fined for not meeting the obligations in their contracts, including $100 per missed collection and $300 per missed collection for the same customer within a 12-month period.

Many of the skyrocketing costs associated with RecycLA having come from service providers assessing extra fees for access and distance, including for having to open a gate or for a bin being located a certain distance from the street.

According to the Bureau of Sanitation report, 67 percent of customer have received no extra fees, but the rest — more than 18,000 customers — have received them for either distance or access, with 6 percent being charged for both.

Some customers were erroneously charged, the report said. For example, customers were being charged for access when their gates to solid waste bins were not only unlocked but removed.

According to the report, the Bureau of Sanitation sent a letter to six of the seven service providers on Dec. 15, requesting that charges be removed for distance on 298 properties, and the service providers have agreed to remove 214 of the charges so far.

The report also said a second letter was sent to all seven service providers last month requesting them to remove any distance and/or access charges from 723 customer accounts and that resolutions on these accounts are still pending.