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Trash collector: Sorry for the mess

Waste Management of Pinellas County, the city's garbage collector, apologized Monday for problems picking up trash and announced changes to routes and the addition of a new truck to improve service.

The apology came after City Manager Costa Vatikiotis warned Waste Management last week that the company will be fined for an onslaught of residents' complaints in March.

"I thought we had gone long enough where we had to put that provision of our contract in force," Vatikiotis said. "But I do think they are working to resolve the problems."

Waste Management started a five-year contract to collect the city's garbage, recyclables and yard waste last September, after the city ended a contract with Kimmins Recycling Corp.

But Waste Management hasn't been able to make some collections regularly and has had vehicles break down, Vatikiotis said. Complaints have not been resolved in a reasonable amount of time, frustrating residents and business owners, especially downtown and at the Sponge Docks and condominium complexes.

Michael Laverty, Waste Management's division vice president and site manager for Tarpon Springs, said that the crush of people during the tourist season had created more garbage than expected.

"This is the first year of the contract, and we've had to react to more people being here during the season," Laverty said. "We are making an effort to balance our collection days so that we can meet the needs of our customers."

Waste Management will make a point of doing Monday pickups for users that generate the most garbage, such as big restaurants and condominium complexes, Laverty said.

Smaller businesses that were on the Monday route will be moved to other days. Business owners should be notified of route changes this month, and residential pickup will not be affected, he said.

"We are working to accommodate the extra people in the city now," Laverty said. But "the changes will be permanent."

The city can penalize Waste Management $10 to $25 per incident for each of 14 kinds of problems listed in its contract with the company. Penalties can be levied for failures to take corrective action, clean up spilled refuse, pick up garbage as scheduled and notify customers why service is missed.

"You miss a whole block and you're talking about penalties for 15 or 20 customers at a time," Vatikiotis said. "That adds up."

City staff are verifying complaints for the past month and tallying the penalty against Waste Management, said sanitation coordinator Barbara Hugg. Some complaints duplicate the same problem, and there was not an estimate of how much the penalty might be Monday.

Hugg said complaints increased dramatically in February, and she personally has taken dozens of them on the phone.

Residents will be watching closely to see if their complaints do result in better service _ eventually.

Carole Weaver, vice president of club three of the Lake Tarpon Sail & Tennis Club, has complained repeatedly about irregular garbage collection at her 96-unit condominium building. When the garbage isn't collected, it piles up in garbage chutes and stinks.

"You laugh, because it's only garbage, but it really becomes a problem," Weaver said. "If they don't pick it up one day, I have all these people calling me to say, "It's overflowing!' "

Despite the problems, Vatikiotis said the city's decision to change to Waste Management last August was still justified.

"There's difficulty with any company at some particular time," he said. "Waste Management's performance across the board is not bad at all."

Residents with questions or complaints about waste collection can call the city's customer service line at 942-5609.

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