LEALMAN — Standing on an embankment below a bridge in Raymond H. Neri Community Park, David Lee pointed to the bend in Joe’s Creek where a mound of plastic foam, aluminum and other detritus had formed.
“All the stuff here should have been picked up,” Lee said. “This is where it wound up.”
The exact location of this trash was a consequence of recent heavy rains, Lee said. But it only remained in the neighborhood, he said, because of the problems he and his neighbors have complained about for months: sloppy, inconsistent service from the waste management company that took over the community’s trash collection around the beginning of this year.
The company, Boca Raton-based Coastal Waste & Recycling, sent apology letters a few weeks ago to more than a dozen homes in the unincorporated Pinellas County community, acknowledging its employees had come to pick up trash on the wrong days.
But Lee, a neighborhood organizer, said the problem is more pervasive. Driving around the community Tuesday, he pointed out the symptoms.
A mattress leaned against a street sign in front of one home, and grass grew up around an armchair left on another curb — signs, he said, that Coastal hadn’t been picking up bulk waste. Smaller bits of trash accumulated in the drainage ditches that line many streets in Lealman. Lee attributed that litter, too, to haphazard collection by Coastal.
Since the beginning of the year, Pinellas County’s Solid Waste Department has fielded complaints from more than two dozen Lealman residents, some of whom have called many times, according to public records. (A note under Lee’s name in a county log of complaints noted “constant messages and calls.”) One resident said she had to run down a garbage truck to get her trash collected. Another said that, fed up with missed service, he collected his neighbor’s trash and took it to the landfill himself.
County officials have said the company is well aware of residents’ complaints.
A vice president for Coastal, which operates in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, said Tuesday the company would only answer queries from a reporter via email. After being sent written questions Wednesday morning about residents’ complaints, the vice president, Patti W. Hamilton, said she would not rush answers on a deadline and called the questions “very broad.”
“We have a long-standing reputation for outstanding service in the communities we serve,” Hamilton wrote.
Unlike most unincorporated areas, where residents individually pay waste management companies, Lealman has a unified collection system, where a single vendor collects the trash through a government contract. Homeowners pay for the service, at $192 per year, through their property tax bills. Lealman residents moved to this setup in 2007, after years of patchwork garbage service led to illegal dumping and trash piling up on some properties.
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General blight in the historically low-income area, which has also included run-down buildings and substandard roads, led to Lealman’s designation as the first Community Redevelopment Area in unincorporated Pinellas, allowing for property tax money to go directly back into the community.
To Lee, the problems with trash pickup reflect his sense that Lealman is still somewhat overlooked by local policymakers and power brokers, and he said he fears the dingy appearance furthers negative perceptions of the area.
Paul Sacco, the county’s solid waste director, said the worst problems with Coastal had been confined to the first couple of months of this year. Coastal took over the area after buying the company that previously serviced it, which “was doing it for such a long time, there was no written documentation for routes.” It took Coastal some time to find its footing, Sacco said. Complaints have tapered off, he said, calling some of the more recent concerns exaggerated.
Lee agreed that service has improved. But he said the decline in complaints may just be a sign that his neighbors are exhausted: “It feels like we’re begging.”
“Trash service is such a core, fundamental responsibility of government,” Lee said. “When you can’t get that right, everything on top of that is just irrelevant. I think that’s why (the trash problems) struck a nerve.”
County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who visited Lealman this week in part to see the trash situation, said he understood residents’ frustration. The county has told Coastal that “the grace period is over,” he said, and it will face financial penalties for future problems.
“There’s never been a day my garbage hasn’t been picked up,” said Justice, who lives in St. Petersburg. “We should have that same expectation for any private hauler that comes in and gets a government contract.”
Lealman remains in much better shape than it once was, Justice said. Lee agrees, though he said he fears that it will backslide. He pointed out the irony of the trash chokepoint in Neri Community Park, named for the late community activist who was instrumental in getting garbage collection service for the area.
And he noted that some problems existed even before Coastal took over: In some spots, piles of debris from Hurricane Ian sat on curbs for months. Many were eventually picked up, he said, but not before they were captured on Google Street View. He pulled up the image and sighed.
“We’re forever blighted,” he said.