Many Hernando County residents started 2012 uninformed or misinformed about their new garbage service, and the confusion turned to anger when problems stretched on for weeks — and, in some cases, months.
The county implemented a new countywide garbage franchise at the beginning of the year, switching from three service providers in specific geographic regions to just one — Republic Services — that collects everywhere except in the city of Brooksville.
Randy Canal, the local Republic division manager, recently said the service is now humming along and that he and other company officials are looking forward to implementing new features that will continue to make the system more efficient.
"Overall,'' Canal said, "things have improved dramatically.''
Still, he acknowledged that the early days were not pretty.
The mess started when the company failed to notify customers that the change was taking place and which days people in specific neighborhoods should put out garbage, yard waste and items for recycling.
Even after delayed notices went out, new drivers kept random pickup schedules, which confused residents, or missed entire portions of their assigned zones on the assigned days. Uncollected trash and recycling materials blew around neighborhoods and were scattered by animals.
Customers flooded phone lines, and when the Republic phone banks ceased functioning, callers flooded county offices and county commissioners with complaints and questions about why they had tried to fix a system that many didn't think was broken.
In addition to the notification and collection problems, there was the issue of billing. Republic sent bills to hundreds of residents who had never been on the previous garbage collection lists and who had no interest in signing up for the service.
Officials blamed two of the previous service providers for failing to give Republic their customer lists so that the company would know who wanted garbage picked up and who didn't.
Some customers complained that Republic was trying to strong-arm people and force them into using the service.
On several occasions, Republic officials stood before community groups or the County Commission to apologize and promise they would do better.
For months, Republic trucks continued to pick up trash for some customers who did not pay. But in early May, Republic put residents on notice that those who did not pay would see their service end.
Weeks later, Canal was standing before the County Commission again. Commissioner Dave Russell was clearly not happy that phone calls were still coming in and that basic problems with pickups and billing were not being adequately addressed.
"Honestly,'' Russell told Canal, "our staff is getting hammered.''
For several months after that, Republic Services representatives visited with community groups and homeowners associations, trying to drum up support for automatic trash pickup. Republic representatives talked about the efficiency of having bins picked up by a mechanical arm and dumped into a truck.
While a handful of groups supported the idea and sought the service, no community in Hernando is yet served by the automated system. Canal noted that some communities lost interest when they found out they could not back out of the program after a trial because the cost of buying all of the carts would be too prohibitive.
Still, Canal said he plans to continue to sell the countywide automated system in 2013, in hopes that someday it can be implemented. When county voters were asked about a more ambitious universal version of that service two years ago, they soundly defeated it.
Republic officials are also hopeful that soon they can get the county to help them with billing by moving the cost of garbage collection to residents' property tax bills. That is where property owners now find the annual solid waste assessment to operate the landfill.
In addition, because residents are still confused about every-other-week yard waste collection, Canal said officials would like to discuss making that service weekly at some point.
"We're going to have a better 2013,'' he pledged. "We're getting some other things worked out and moving on forward from here.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.