KEVIN LEININGER: Riding on a garbage truck used to be child’s play; now it’s all in the line of duty for City Council member

Is ending Red River's solid waste and recycling contract the best way to solve service issues? Maybe not.. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Momentum is building to reimburse city residents for poor trash and recycling service. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Kevin Leininger

It wasn’t exactly an episode of “Undercover Boss,” since the driver knew very well that his passenger was a City Council member. Still, Paul Ensley deserves credit for being willing to get his hands dirty in pursuit of answers to a problem that has nagged the city’s government — and many of its residents — since the year began.

Ensley, R-1st, spent about six hours on a garbage truck last week in response to concerns about Texas-based Red River Waste Solutions, which replaced Republic Services as the city’s waste and recycling contract after submitted a seven-year combined bid of $6.9 million last year. Complaints of missed trash and recycling pick ups and other problems began almost immediately after the transition, and city and company officials initially attributed the problems to inexperience and bad weather. “But we’re starting to see an uptick again,” said Ensley. “I said to myself, ‘There’s only so much council can do but it is our responsibility (to find out why), since we approved the contract.”

So Ensley arranged the ride-along, and if his experience didn’t provide all the answers it did at least educate him about what Red River is doing to address its alleged deficiencies — and what homeowners can do to help the company and themselves.

In the cab of each truck is a small computer, and every collection point on the route pops up as the vehicles passes. When a collection occurs, the address is checked. If no collection is made, a reason must be logged. Photographs document the information, which is time-stamped and sent to the city’s 311 call center, so operators can access the information should someone wonder why a collection was not made.

With the new system, Ensley said, “There’s no good excuse for missing a house.” But as the truck passed an estimated 1,000 homes in his northeast-side district, Ensley noticed several things that might begin to explain some of the complaints.

“I was surprised how many houses didn’t have bins out (for collection),” said Ensley, who also learned Red River will not empty the old Brown National Serv-All bins. It will take trash in bags or containers other than the official city bins, but additional containers take longer to collect — especially this time of year when yard waste is plentiful. That makes it harder to make the 6 p.m. collection deadline.

In other words, residents should get their bins to the curb on time.

“From what I saw, things were running fairly smooth,” Ensley concluded while also conceding that he may have gotten a more representative sample had be been more “incognito.” Colleges always serve better food on parents’ weekend, and Ensley got one of Red Rivers’ most experienced drivers. “But I did get a better picture than I had before,” he said. “Our No. 1 goal is to make sure trash is picked up and the bins aren’t left in the street, knocked over or blocking the driveway.”

Ensley isn’t the only councilman looking for answers, which is why Red River officials are expected to appear at a meeting in June to update their performance. Ensley figures he’s better-equipped to participate in the discussion, and is confident Red River is doing what it can to attract and train good employees in a booming economy that can make finding qualified employees difficult.

When I was a kid, I was thrilled to ride on the back of a garbage truck. Then again, I and my friends used to follow the fogging truck on our bikes as it drove through our neighborhood spraying its thick cloud of probably toxic insecticide.

That doesn’t have much to do with Red River, I know, but it probably explains a lot about me. Ensley’s hands-on approach to his job says a lot, too, and is something other officials should emulate.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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