TAMPA — On her very first day as a Hillsborough County commissioner, Kimberly Overman walked into her new office and saw six voicemails blinking on her new office phone.
Every call was from a constituent with the same complaint: trash left to putrefy in the Florida sun for weeks at a time. That was in November, she said, and the calls haven't stopped coming.
"They all said their trash was left out for weeks at a time," Overman said. "We've been dealing with this for our constituents for months with what appears to be little improvement based on the emails and phone calls we're getting."
All three waste collection companies hired by Hillsborough County have experienced "significant service failures" over the past three years, according to a report released this month by the county's solid waste management division.
But Republic Services has experienced the most problems. The company is responsible for picking up trash and recycling five times a week from 108,000 homes within the county.
The missed routes, mechanical failures, spills and leaks left unattended and constituent complaints left unanswered led County Administrator Mike Merrill to issue a legal notice to Republic earlier this month, giving them 30 days — until Feb. 15 — to clean up their act or else the county would hold them in breach of contract and could "certainly terminate them and take additional steps, if necessary, to debar them from future work in Hillsborough County," Merrill said at last week's county commission meeting.
"That 30-day window needs to be a hard 30 days," Overman said. "We've been dealing with this for our constituents for months with what does appear to be little improvement based on the emails that we're getting."
In Oct. 2013, Hillsborough County adopted an automatic recycling system, distributing specialized bins designed to be picked up and dumped by robotic arms attached to a truck. The county was separated into five equal zones of approximately 53,000 customers each.
All five zones have experienced growth since then, but none more than east Hillsborough County, which is serviced by Republic and Waste Management.
County officials have spoken with Waste Management and the other contracted hauler, Waste Connections, to create contingency plans for picking up Republic routes if necessary, Merrill said. All three contracts will be up for renewal in 2020.
"In the first three years of the contract we had little or no service failures across the entire system," Lyons said. "Since the first of the year we've had hiccups across the whole system. I think we're kind of getting back on track — time will tell."
But over the last three years, the issues with Republic Services have continued to pile up.
From December to January, Republic Services accrued $538,500 in liquidated damages for violations of their contract with the county that impact customers, such as missed collections or routes, chronic service failures and failing to cleanup spills.
In January 2017, Republic failed to complete 27 residential collection routes in one day, resulting in more than 20,000 residents left with full garbage cans in their driveways. This January, Republic reported 62 incomplete routes. All three collectors left a combined 244 routes incomplete around the holidays, from Dec. 28 to Jan. 7.
Each service route is comprised of 1,000 to 1,500 homes and is considered "incomplete" if 3 percent of customers' trash goes uncollected.
In Apollo Beach, trash sat simmering in the sunlight for two weeks.
"I'm just saying people are just unhappy," commissioner Sandy Murman said. "They want their garbage picked up because they end up paying for it. It's as simple as that."
The holidays were a rough patch, said Republic Services' southeast area president James Amick. But the company's continued breakdown in services can be boiled down to three categories, he said: leadership, fleet reliability and employee retention.
Republic executives hired new management for Hillsborough County in 2017, but "recognized early on we made a mistake," Amick said.
It operates with a staff of more than 200 employees in Hillsborough County, but in 2018 alone, he said the company lost 64 employees, mainly due to low compensation. In October, Republic told employees it would change its pay schedule to an hourly rate.
"Knock on wood, we've only lost one employee since we did that," Amick said.
The waste management company has also called in additional trucks from locations throughout the southeast to help Hillsborough County staff power through backlogs of missed pickups and "stop the bleeding," he said.
"I want to apologize for the lack of service or the lack of promise that we've been able to keep to our customers," Amick told commissioners at Thursday's meeting. "I'm ashamed to tell you I've been in this business 30 years and I've never had to come in front of a board like this and explain 18 months or two years' worth of poor service."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.