Los Angeles officials grilled trash haulers Tuesday over the chaotic rollout of a new collection program that was supposed to improve the city’s recycling services and reduce the amount of trash piling up in area landfills.
But since the program went into effect this summer, City Councilmember Paul Koretz says he has received more than 1,000 complaints from customers about gargantuan fees and “hideous” service.
“This has really been an embarrassment for the council,” Koretz told representatives for the seven companies now charged with picking up much of the city’s trash. “It’s really been something that I never would have envisioned going this badly in my wildest dreams.”
Company representatives told members of the City Council’s Energy, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee that they’ve struggled to serve unanticipated new customers and to meet the program’s strict requirements.
“I could not possibly care less how hard this has been for you,” said Councilmember Paul Krekorian, arguing that haulers should have been prepared to take on new responsibilities when they signed a contract with the city to provide those services.
The ambitious new collection program, called RecycLA, was designed to reform the city’s trash collection services, helping to bring Los Angeles into compliance with state laws requiring all commercial buildings to have recycling programs for both solid and commercial waste.
City officials also engineered the program, which started up in July and rolled out gradually through the end of the year, to improve air quality by taking high-emission garbage trucks off the road.
To do this, officials divided the city into 11 different zones and awarded contracts to seven different companies to collect trash at businesses, apartment buildings, and condos in those areas (the Department of Sanitation still handles trash collection for residents of single-family homes and apartment complexes with less than five units).
To qualify for the contracts, haulers had to agree to standards set by the city, such as providing recycling and green waste collection and employing low-emission vehicles.
So far, the service changes haven’t proven popular with landlords and property managers.
Dozens of building owners aired their grievances before the committee Tuesday, complaining of astronomical bills, missed pickups, poor customer service, and a host of other issues since the service changes went into effect.
Beverly Kenworthy, vice president of public affairs at the California Apartment Association said members of the property management trade group had seen their trash bills go up as much as 400 percent under the program.
That’s not just a problem for landlords to worry about. Tenants may end up footing the bill for the new trash collection services in many complexes, as owners pass the costs off through rent hikes.
“I’ve got over 1,500 tenants that are going to get rent increases,” landlord Chris Hutchison told the committee.
Residents of rent-controlled properties are protected from sudden jumps in monthly rent, but most Los Angeles buildings constructed after 1978 aren’t subject to the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, and tenants in those buildings could see the price of their apartments rise with the new trash costs.
The higher rates could also jeopardize affordable housing construction, said Christopher French, assistant asset manager at the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation. He told the committee that trash costs were eating away budgets for the organization’s existing developments and making it more difficult to finance new projects.
Councilmember Gil Cedillo asked haulers how they could alleviate increased costs for affordable housing providers, but received a noncommittal response.
“We’ll see what we can do,” said Dave Hauser, general manager at Republic Services.
Los Angeles officials initially supportive of the program have quickly become frustrated with its early results.
In a December statement, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell said the system had “fallen far short of my expectations.” Councilmember Mike Bonin called its rollout “simply unacceptable.”
But in spite of the program’s early problems, it still has support from many environmental groups, who argue that the fees and service issues are outweighed by the program’s ecological benefits.
Sierra Club conservation program manager Angélica González said the collection system would make the city “a national leader when it comes to environmental standards” once local leaders are able to “iron out wrinkles” in its implementation.
Veronica Padilla, director of Pacoima Beautiful, praised the program for new requirements on city waste facilities meant to cut down on pollution and reduce noxious odors that can disrupt life for nearby residents.
“I grew up near Bradley landfill,” she said, “so I know exactly what these smells are like and what communities go through.”
On Tuesday, the committee proposed a long list of new oversight strategies for the program, including billing audits for haulers, public reports on missed pickups, new studies of the environmental effects of the program, and educational outreach to tenants on how to properly dispose of trash under the new system.
Members of the committee made it clear they were willing to take haulers to task for poor perfomance, asking for a report from city staff on legal options to “address the inadequate service” of the seven businesses.
“I’m not interested in excuses,” Committee Chair Nury Martinez told company representatives. “I’m just here to say you will be held accountable.”