KEVIN LEININGER: Before Fort Wayne City Council ends waste contract, maybe it should use the contract to address problems

Is ending Red River's solid waste and recycling contract the best way to solve service issues? Maybe not.. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Kevin Leininger

As a Fort Wayne newspaperman, I’d like to thank Red River Waste Solutions for the full-page apology it ran in Sunday’s Journal Gazette. The ad couldn’t have been cheap, especially on top of all the fines the Texas-based company is facing for the poor service it has provided since taking over for Republic Services in January.

But as a Fort Wayne homeowner, I’d prefer the company replace its promise to “get the job done efficiently and effectively” with actual results.

If the non-binding resolution to be introduced at Tuesday’s City Council declaring Red River in breach of its contract can achieve results $171,450 in fines levied between April and June have not (July fines have not yet been determined), I’d be all for it. But as Board of Works officials told council in June, only a court can declare Red River in “material breach” of the contract that pays it about $5 million per year for trash collection and $2 million for recycling. That means such a process — while perhaps emotionally and politically satisfying — would also be costly and time consuming.

The same contract that accuses Red River of poor performance offers a potentially attractive alternative.

Republic’s performance was not perfect. As I reported two months ago, the city fined Republic nearly $97,000 last year, and its number of missed pick ups increased four of its last five years on the job, more than doubling from 596 in 2013 to 1,161 in 2017. But those numbers are positively sterling compared to Red River. A six-month fine that is nearly double of what Republic faced in an entire year reflects a similar increase in service complaints.

Verified missed calls in January were 3,279 for trash and 1,843 for recycling. Those numbers were 1,050 and 661 in February, 918 and 817 in March, 917 and 484 in April, 2,054 and 766 in May, 2,214 in and 852 in June and 1,833 and 748 in July. As you can see, the number of complaints have fluctuated but remain lower than at the beginning of the year and in fact dropped in June and July.

That’s good, but not nearly good enough under a contract that imposes fines for anything more than one miss per 1,000 households. In July, 82,248 homes received trash service and 74,165 recycling service.

It’s true that many Fort Wayne companies are struggling to recruit and keep good employees, but as City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, has noted, the local economy did not drastically change between December and January; the city’s waste contractor did. The logical inference is that Red River won its seven-year contract by keeping costs low — including payroll costs.

Red River’s ad insists the company is hiring more drivers and, if so, perhaps the number of missed homes will continue to decrease. But there is still far to go before its performance comes anywhere close to the level demanded by the contract it so eagerly sought. But that very contract includes provisions that might prove helpful even without declaring the deal void — which, don’t forget, would create a vacuum that would not be easily or quickly filled.

For one thing, Red River was required to post a performance bond equal to 100 percent of its annual contract price “as security for the faithful performance and payment ” of its obligations. In addition, Red River is allowed to subcontract up to 10 percent of its work — which could prove helpful if the company is indeed shorthanded.

Russ Jehl, R-2nd, who first proposed the contract-breach resolution, said tapping the bond for money that could be used to augment Red River crews or pay subcontractors could pose a workable solution. “Those are the kinds of things we hope to flesh out (with the resolution). We have to begin the process.”

“We have never failed a contract, and we will not fail this one,” Red River’s ad concluded. After months of irritated patience, council seems serious about holding the company to that promise — or else.

Mistaken identity

In my recent column about debate over the future of New Haven’s Canal Days festival, it appears I wrongly attributed comments about “selfish” business owners and their need to work harder to woo customers to New Haven Planning Director Brian Yoh. The comments were made by another individual, and I apologize to Yoh for the error.

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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