Port St. Lucie Council agrees to update ordinance and schedule special meeting to address Waste Pro contract

PORT ST. LUCIE – The City Council held a lengthy debate July 13 on ongoing service issues with Waste Pro USA before ultimately voting unanimously to incorporate nine items currently in its garbage, recycling and yard-waste contract with the Longwood-based company into its own Solid Waste Ordinance.

Neighborhood Services Director Carmen Capezzuto reminded Council members that his presentation that evening was in response to questions previously posed to staff during a June 14 discussion on recent Waste Pro service interruptions. According to statistics he revealed during the latest meeting, the city registered 1,900 service complaints related to 175 missed or incomplete Waste Pro routes in June of this year alone.

“Council wanted to know two things,” he said. “What are the actions that the city can take to improve our ordinance and how can we help Waste Pro provide the services that our residents deserve and expect. I take this very seriously. Residents don’t have a choice with who they select for garbage service. They have to use our franchise hauler, so it’s very important to me.”

For his part, the Neighborhood Services director attributed many of Waste Pro’s service-related issues over the past several months to employment issues related to the pandemic coupled with the city’s recent dramatic growth spurt.

“Everything we’re dealing with has caused us to look at our ordinance to see what can we modify based on best practices in the industry to ultimately provide those services that our residents expect,” he continued. “The important part of the presentation has to do with some of the short-term things that we can bring back to you in two weeks that are consistent with our current contract with Waste Pro, and then there’s some long-term ordinance changes that would require us to work with Waste Pro to amend the project.”

Mr. Capezzuto then interrupted his presentation to introduce Waste Pro USA Senior Vice President Keith Banasiak, who told the Council his employees handled the early part of the pandemic much better than they have more recently.

“We had dedicated people that were going out there every day and doing what they had to do,” he said. “We did what we had to do to help them by getting trucks cleaned and keeping social distancing, and the guys went out there every day and did it without fail. And then things started to change. We got towards the end of the pandemic where we had some incentives for people to stay at home and maybe not work, and we’ve seen a dramatic change and a challenge in that.”

One of the primary issues Waste Pro is facing has to do with competition for drivers with a commercial driver’s license. While many over-the-road haulers aren’t required to get out and do manual labor, his company’s drivers must regularly lend a hand to their assistants on the back of the garbage or recycle trucks.

“We’re competing with a smaller pool of potential drivers,” he explained. “A driver with a CDL can drive a bus, a cement truck, [or] a landscape vehicle. What makes it challenging for us is they may have to get out and help load, where a cement truck driver can go in at three in the morning, go sit in his cab, get loaded, go deliver his load to clean his chute and call it a day before the rain hits. It’s similar to dump truck drivers, [who] basically don’t get out of the truck. So, their job is much easier than ours, and the workforce is changing, that’s what we’re finding.”

Mr. Banasiak admitted he’d recently visited Port St. Lucie to accompany drivers throughout the city to analyze potential service problems and came away from that experience optimistic.

“What I saw was easily fixable – it wasn’t alarming to me,” he added. “I found out we have some work to do on our end. We have to do a better job notifying residents of things that are out and why they’re left behind; notifying the city staff that yes we were there, this is what we saw, and this wasn’t serviced; [and] taking that same information back to ourselves and saying, we have this out here [and] we need to deal with this address.”

While Vice-Mayor Shannon Martin expressed empathy with Mr. Banasiak’s struggles, she insisted on seeing a proposed solution to the problems, as well as a long-term strategic plan.

“I do sympathize with the situation and the drivers,” she said. “But, I also agree – and I have stated previously – that we have our contract, and people expect to have the garbage picked up. So, the driver issue, there’s also that longevity and making sure that there’s not turnover going on in the future. We need to see a strategic plan on how we’re going to address the issues. Outside of having that, we’re going to keep having this situation occur.”

Vice-Mayor Martin, who’s serving as mayor pro tem until a special election is held this fall, also offered words of advice to city residents who’ve recently clamored to change garbage haulers.

“I just want everyone to know that it is not that simple,” she explained. “First of all, it would take over a year in order to do something like that, and the amount our residents are currently paying would probably quadruple. It’s a lot more difficult than just saying let’s cancel the contract. So it’s imperative that we continue to work with Waste Pro, get to a resolution and solve the problems that we have, make the changes that we need to from an ordinance standpoint [and] continue to hold Waste Pro accountable.”

Councilwoman Jolien Caraballo agreed with the need for a strategic plan, directing her comments directly to Mr. Banasiak and City Manager Russ Blackburn.

“The next time this is here, I need something tangible: I need a plan [and] I need an ordinance,” she said. “I appreciate the discourse, the discussion and the sharing with the public, but we have to have solutions next time.”

Although Mr. Capezzuto’s presentation initially focused on incorporating nine provisions from the current Waste Pro contract into the Solid Waste Ordinance that address things such as garbage and waste definitions, restrictions, limitations and penalties for violations, he also touched on of three growing issues that are now slowing down garbage collection in the city. He wants to negotiate on potentially tighter limitations on the sizes of move-out/eviction piles, yard waste piles and construction and demolition debris piles.

“One of the things we’ve recognized with Waste Pro – and we’ve talked to experts – to have two services per week where you can put out an unlimited amount of trash is unheard of,” he emphasized. “If we don’t start taking steps now to curb that, our residents are going to pay exorbitantly more in the future.”

Most Council members, however, balked at Mr. Capezzuto’s initial estimate of an October timeline for his presentation of an amended Waste Pro contract, expressing a preference for a special City Council meeting to address the issues as soon as possible. Councilwoman Stefanie Morgan concurred with that idea.

“We’ve got to get this going now so we can see results and have a plan and work the plan,” she said. “We’ve got to have that, but I’d also like to see the white paper on best practices from other municipalities because I’m sure they’re all experiencing this right now.”

The Board subsequently voted unanimously to approve the initial amendments to the ordinance and have staff schedule a special meeting as soon as possible.

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