HERNANDO BEACH — As a disastrous first week of service was drawing to a close late Thursday, representatives of Republic Services stood before a community group that grilled them on what had happened.
John Clifford, who handles government relations for the company in this area, told members of the Hernando Beach Homeowners Association that he originally had planned to come simply to talk about the new trash removal service.
But after schedule notices arrived too late, collection was delayed in some areas, bills were sent to thousands of residents who don't get the service and phone lines were so overwhelmed that hundreds of customers couldn't get through to get answers, Clifford said he wanted to clarify the issues.
And he wanted to apologize.
"We were not prepared for the onslaught of calls,'' he told residents.
Expectations of 500 customer calls a day were replaced with volumes three times that level, a company spokeswoman said.
Twenty more lines and call takers were added late Thursday to help with the burden. But by midday Friday, the calls had not diminished, Clifford reported.
Initially, most of the calls focused on finding out which days trash would be collected in what neighborhoods because notices giving those details didn't land in many mailboxes until midweek. Some have still not been delivered, according to county residents who have contacted the Times.
At the Thursday evening meeting, Clifford also told Hernando Beach residents details of the "mishap" that had the company sending out thousands of bills to people who are not in the mandatory garbage collection zone of Spring Hill and who have opted not to pay for garbage collection service.
That set off another round of angry phone calls.
"We didn't get any customer lists'' from the other two haulers who had been working in Hernando County for the last 11 years, Clifford said. For the eastern part of the county, served by Choice Environmental, Republic Services was told there were about 5,000 customers. But with no names, the company had no idea which of the 9,000 residents in the area were receiving service.
Other portions of the county, served by Waste Management, had about 40,000 subscribers, but only about 35,000 appeared on a list of names that the company provided to Republic Services, Clifford said.
So the company pulled all of the county property records in those areas and sent bills to every property owner.
Clifford said Republic was promised the lists and only found out late as it prepared to take over countywide service that it was not going to get them. He said Republic thought sending bills to everyone would give people the opportunity to notify the company if they didn't want the service.
Instead it generated additional calls — some from people demanding an investigation of Republic for possible violations of laws or rules that prohibit companies from charging for services residents haven't requested.
One resident at Thursday's meeting demanded to know who gave the company permission to bill everyone.
"We were sending bills out to people because we didn't know who got the service and who did not,'' Clifford said.
Another problem from the mass mailing involved people who get garbage service, but don't pay for it directly. Residents in subdivisions with homeowners associations that collect a fee and pay for common expenses, including garbage, never see a separate garbage bill, but got one from Republic.
Landlords who have tenants also got bills based on their property ownership, even though their tenants pay their own bills.
Clifford said instructions on how to deal with all of those circumstances will be outlined in another letter going out to many Republic Services customers in the next several days. The bottom line, he said, is "do not subscribe to the service unless you want to.''
"We thought that (using property records for billing) was a good fix, but it turned out that it wasn't,'' Clifford said. "We apologize because it looks like it caused a lot more hardships for people.''
On Friday afternoon, Clifford reported that he believes all areas of Hernando County had received service at least once this week.
Brenda Frazier, the county's community relations coordinator, said later that her office continued to be inundated with calls from residents who were saying they still had not had their garbage picked up.
Republic Services officials have been called to appear before the County Commission on Tuesday to explain their actions.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.