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  1. News

Tampa audit finds problems in commercial garbage pickup

TAMPA — Garbage truck drivers getting paid for 10 hours when they drove eight. Lax record keeping. Underbilling. Questionable follow-through on customer requests.

Those were the problems identified in an internal audit of commercial operations at Tampa's Solid Waste Department.

The audit, in the works for more than a year, goes to the City Council this week. There, the chairman of the public works committee is not happy about what he's reading.

"It's something we need to look at," council member Mike Suarez said Monday.

Department director Mark Wilfalk said his staff has followed up, point by point, and put in tighter policies and procedures.

"Not only are they in place," he said, "but as part of our practice, we'll come back again in three months and look at them and make sure that we're doing what we're saying we're going to do."

The audit originally set out to determine whether the city's Solid Waste Department was issuing the right-sized bins to its business customers, was picking them up on schedule and could tell when changes to routes caused missed pickups. The department has about 81,500 customers, and nearly 8,600 are commercial accounts.

But auditors reported uncovering a wider-ranging set of issues, including:

• The Solid Waste commercial operations division allowed drivers to complete their routes on their own pace within 10 hours. Most routinely finished in as few as eight, but were still paid for 10.

The department has since moved those drivers to an hourly schedule, effective in April.

Historically, Wilfalk said, working a garbage route was physically demanding, with lots of knee, back and elbow injuries from lifting bins. So both public and private haulers made the jobs more appealing by offering to let drivers finish early once they completed their assigned task for the day.

In recent years, pickup has been automated, so it's less demanding. Before auditors raised the issue, he said, Solid Waste officials were looking at going from a "task" system to an hourly schedule.

"I don't want anybody to get the impression that the city was paying for work that was not being performed," Wilfalk said. "That's not the case."

• A check of 76 commercial accounts found seven businesses with containers that didn't match what the city had on record and six others billed at a lower rate than should have been charged. The department said it has improved the accuracy of its inventory, including by attaching radio frequency identification devices, or RFIDs, to bins.

Solid waste employees also checked every commercial waste container, Wilfalk said. They found about 15 discrepancies, total.

• Solid Waste was not keeping route sheets used by commercial drivers, so auditors said it was hard to research or confirm activities. That changed as of July 2014, officials said.

• The commercial division aims to resolve customer requests within five business days, but when auditors sampled 25 work orders, no one could find four, two missed the five-day deadline and two showed that the customer was not properly charged for the service provided.

In response, the department hired a logistics supervisor to supervise the follow-through and use RFID and GPS technology to help keep track of trash bin, roll-off containers, compactors and residential services. The devices not only help keep track of where various-sized containers are, but they are scanned when the container is emptied, creating a record of the service.

Suarez said he hopes any snags in the use of the RFID trackers in the commercial division don't carry over as the department begins using them in the much larger residential customer base.

Wilfalk said he doesn't expect any problems.

"We're excited," he said. "This is going to go a long ways to improving our inventory accountability."