TAMPA — Last Monday was supposed to be garbage pickup day for George Furlong and his Eagle Crest Drive neighbors in Lutz, the first day of Hillsborough County's new automated service.
When no trucks arrived by Tuesday, he called the new garbage hauler, Progressive Waste Solutions, and left a message. No return call. He called Thursday when that garbage was still at the curb. Again, no return call. A third call to the county was dropped after Furlong spent 10 minutes on hold.
"It's bad enough not having the trash picked up," said Furlong, 50, who handles third-party claims for a medical management company. "I'm in the customer service industry. Responsiveness is everything."
Furlong's experience, however, appears to be unusual. For the most part, county officials report that a transition to new garbage collection service has gone smoothly. They have numbers to back that up.
"We knew we would have some issues and we'd have to react to some things," said Kim Byer, the county's solid waste transition manager, who is overseeing the changes. "But it's getting better every day. The calls are going down. The haulers are learning their routes."
That's not to say there haven't been problems. Hundreds of customers still had not received their trash bin, recycling bin or both. Entire streets were overlooked by haulers on new routes.
Some trucks had mechanical issues and it was slow going for some drivers of taller, longer vehicles as they negotiated car-choked neighborhoods while learning the nuances of their mechanical collection systems.
Many times, drivers had to hop out of the trucks because cans were facing the wrong direction.
Two of the three private haulers reported trucks out past 8 p.m. Monday. By Friday, almost all of their vehicles had returned to their bases by the close of business.
"It's actually not as bad as I thought it would be," said Commissioner Victor Crist, who represents northern Hillsborough. His office fielded a few dozen complaints, not the hundreds he feared.
County commissioners voted two years ago to seek new garbage collection bids for the first time in 16 years. They believed changes in the industry, such as more favorable terms for recycled materials and more competition, would lower customer rates. They did, by about $30 a year per home.
Commissioners made a couple of significant decisions along the way. They switched to automated service — vehicles equipped with mechanical arms to dump standardized, county-issued garbage bins. They also carved out new territories in an attempt to lure additional bidders.
And they decided to do it all it once, instead of phasing it in by neighborhood like Tampa did. That made for the largest simultaneous rollout of automated service in the nation, said Don Ross, director of operations for Kessler Consulting, which assisted the county with the transition.
"I think we recognized that just based on the sheer scope of this project that there would be some bumps in the road," Ross said.
The overall the complaint level is low, he said, given the logistical challenges.
The county has roughly 265,000 residential customers spread out over some 900 square miles, taking in dusty country highways and suburban neighborhoods with their tentacled streets that end in culs-de-sac.
Three companies won the bids, the same ones the county used before the changes: Waste Management of Tampa, Republic Services of Florida and Progressive Waste Solutions. But they are mostly working five brand new territories and using new, sometimes bulkier trucks.
A county hotline for garbage complaints during the transition averaged 1,400 calls a day during the first week, mostly from people with questions about the new service such as clarifying their pickup day. Two of the haulers averaged 1,200 daily calls from people who contacted them directly. Waste Management, with fewer customers, had an daily average of 700 to 800 calls, according to the county.
From Monday through Thursday, the first full cycle of trash pickup for which the county has a breakdown of complaint calls by type, 2,129 people called to report service problems. Most had not gotten either their household waste or recycling bins or both picked up on the assigned day.
More than 500 callers said they had not gotten one or both of their garbage and recycling bins from the county. Several calls also came from elderly or disabled people who were unable to move the bulky bins.
With more than a half-million scheduled collections in the first week, that all adds up to an error rate of a fraction of a percent.
Fear of problems during a transition were largely what discouraged commissioners from seeking new bids for the service for years. The last time there were changes, commissioners got thousands of complaints and trash went uncollected for weeks.
"This is at least three times more the magnitude, more complicated than what happened then," said Mitch Kessler, president of the county's consulting firm.
That was little consolation to people who didn't get their garbage picked up last week and sometimes had to wait for days, with long hold times on the phone if they got their calls answered at all.
"Here's the thing: I understand there's going to be glitches with something like this," said Margaret Cabral, 63, a semiretired Riverview resident. "All I'm looking for is a response."
Her husband called Waste Management and Commissioner Al Higginbotham's office. But she said they were unable to get an answer about when the trash would be picked up when no trucks showed up for the scheduled Tuesday pickup, or the day afterward. One finally showed up Thursday evening.
Higginbotham said Saturday that, without knowing specifics, Cabral's problem would have been referred to the appropriate person to fix it. Even Higginbothan's garbage didn't get picked up from his Plant City home as scheduled Thursday, and he had to wait until the next day like some others.
"There are some glitches and we're working very hard to fix them," he said.
Furlong, the Lutz resident, ultimately called his commissioner and was more satisfied with the outcome. He got a return call within 30 minutes.
Then Byer, overseeing the transition, called and left her direct phone number.
Furlong's garbage got picked up about an hour later.
He's fine with the switch to a new system and hopes the county works out the kinks.
"I'm going to wait and see until next week," he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.