- Photo courtesy of City of Houston

Photo courtesy of City of Houston

The Houston City Council this week approved two measures to supplement its trash collection fleet and services. These consist of renting five rear loader solid waste trucks for a one-year term for a maximum cost of $500,000 and hiring a private refuse collection agency for a one-year period for a maximum cost of $4.5 million.

The city is taking these steps because its aged garbage collection fleet and a shortage of operators has made it difficult for its Solid Waste Management Services department to keep up with its various refuse collection programs. The city needs about 140 refuse vehicles to run its routes daily. So many vehicles are out for maintenance that some days, even deploying all its backup vehicles, the city is short vehicles. Harry Hayes, Solid Waste director, said last week, it had only one vehicle available for backup throughout the entire city.

But he said trash is not piling up.

“We don’t have trash piling up. When we get into these kinds of situations, we prioritize what we must, and that is to avert a public health hazard by picking up the garbage, so we always get the garbage,” he said.

Hayes said the department, in coordination with the Mayor's Office, Fleet Management, and Human Resources, has been working on fixing the manpower and truck issues. Despite a shortage of CDL drivers across the nation, the city has hired 14 operators who started this week, and 13 more operators are expected to begin training soon, he said.

As for vehicles, 152 pieces of equipment are being replaced in FY-19 (cab and chassis are purchased and counted separately from bodies). Of these, 32 refuse trucks were purchased through Capital Improvement Plan funds, and 26 additional refuse trucks were purchased off-cycle using FEMA reimbursement dollars for equipment use during Hurricane Harvey. Each automated unit used for garbage and recycling costs $280,000. Sixty-nine additional vehicles will replace aged-out units for the garbage, recycling, heavy trash, yard waste, and citizen drop-off programs.    

The city has not established a permanent fleet replacement plan, nor does it have a solid waste fee.  Both of these practices have been recommended since the 1980s with neither having been adopted by city council.  Instead, the Solid Waste department relies on the general fund for equipment purchasing dollars, competing with public safety departments for funds.

Last year, the department purchased just two refuse trucks, and at least 25 should be replaced every year in order to keep up a three- to five-year replacement cycle, Hayes said. Hayes, who has served as solid waste director for 11 years, said this needs to change if these problems are to be fixed.

“I’ve been talking about the need for a solid waste fee my entire tenure, as did my predecessors.  I’m serving my third mayor, Sylvester Turner, who has attacked the equipment issue head on, along with other long-standing deferred issues,” he said. “The need for a secured solid waste management plan has not gone away, and we have lots of needs.”

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