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Republican councilmen call on Fort Wayne Mayor to solve ongoing Red River trash saga quickly.

Red River Waste Solutions
Trash and recycling

In the big picture, Fort Wayne has gotten some good news on its garbage collection woes: the bankruptcy proceedings for Red River Waste Solutions suggest the city will be able to bring on a new garbage contractor in four-to-six months, and a bill to give local governments more control over contracts overwhelmingly passed in the House in Indianapolis.

Earlier this week, the Board of Public Works agreed to allow the Solid Waste Department to begin seeking bids on a new contractor.

But right now, garbage and recycling collection continues to be behind schedule or flat-out missed, and recent snow storms have only exacerbated those delays.

2nd District Republican Councilman Russ Jehl met with reporters Friday to call out Mayor Tom Henry, a Democrat, for slow-walking the process of improving garbage service right away, accusing him of “hiding behind the bankruptcy process.”

Jehl contends there are a number of steps the mayor’s office can enact right now that don’t interfere with the courts, which he presented in a five-step “actionable transition plan.”

  • An honest assessment of capabilities - Conduct an honest assessment of the current trash collection capabilities of the contractor and city staff. Two weeks ago the community was told by Solid Waste that by the end of the week they would be caught up. Two weeks later they are, at minimum, four days behind, with many people waiting well over a week for service.
  • Stop Making Excuses, Make Service Adjustments - Likely, the honest assessment will show the combined efforts of Red River and the City cannot pick up all the garbage and recycling on time.  Rather than continuing to expect the broken system to work, it is necessary to temporarily reduce curbside recycling to once a month and focus on picking up the garbage on time.
  • Reset the System - With a realistic and honest plan in place that is scaled to existing capabilities, the system should be reset with a reliable schedule.  The schedule is presently so off, it is not a schedule at all. 
  • Put the full resources of the City to work -The 311 system is broken and is no longer able to address the other needs of the community due to overwhelming trash calls.  Solid Waste cannot keep track of aging misses.  Provide administrative assistance and staffing from other areas within Public Works or other departments to ease the load and service the residents.
  • Ensure misses do not go past a week - With helping 311 and Solid Waste with additional resources, ensure that at no point does any resident go more than a week without trash pick up.

“Let’s reallocate our resources, let’s treat this as the crisis it is, let’s get the people there – let’s get the administration there, first of all – let’s get organized,” Jehl said. “Let’s quit watching the levees be topped and quit complaining about it raining. Let’s do something.”

3rd District Republican Councilman Tom Didier joined Jehl for the news conference. Didier will be running for mayor of Fort Wayne in 2023, and noted that the current state of garbage collection is, at least right now, the biggest issue in the city.

He added that he’s concerned further delays and missed pickups could create a sanitation hazard, especially once the weather starts to get warmer.

“Because when May and June come rolling around, and we’re still having three, four, five, six days of garbage – even two weeks – it’s not going to be pretty,” Didier said. “We’re not trying to make the mayor angry, we’re not trying to make the administration upset. What we’re trying to do is set out an action plan that’s going to get the job done and maybe put an extra Band-aid on this thing until we can get a new provider in July or August.”

Henry’s office issued a response to Jehl’s plan Friday afternoon, saying:

“The City Administration today received a news release from the City Council office following a news conference led by two members of City Council.

Collaboration, open communication, and constructive dialogue will be more helpful moving forward than repeated news conferences that point out the solid waste delivery shortcomings that are already known and being worked on to help meet the needs of the community. Councilmen Jehl and Didier know that the Administration is doing everything in its power to make the needed corrections. Councilman Jehl also sits on the Solid Waste Advisory Board and knows how hard everyone is working to overcome these challenges.

City officials are in daily communication with Red River’s bankruptcy counsel, as well as its staff and restructuring advisors. We are also in daily communication with a number of industry providers seeking available capacity to help offset Red River’s shortcomings. There is no lack of effort, communication, or creativity. At present, the City is operating seven vehicles with City staff to help offset Red River’s shortcomings. We are also coordinating additional collections with other parties.

The City anticipates finalizing an agreement with Red River very soon to serve in a short transition period. The City must comply with State mandated public bidding laws in order to secure a long-term replacement provider of the City’s choosing. The formalities of complying with the public bidding process is already underway. The bankruptcy court has been advised of the impending proposal. Much progress is being made.

The City will issue an update this weekend once we're able to determine how much progress is able to be made in today's collections. Today's results will help determine the best next steps for our ratepayers with a good understanding of the collection schedule moving forward. We also know that our residents and neighborhoods want weekly garbage collection and recycling every other week. We plan to continue that process.

We know that Red River underbid the original contract and is now insolvent and faltering. The waste industry nationally is stretched thin with its own labor and equipment shortages and the impact of COVID-19.

Our 311 staff and City employees working on the solid waste issue do outstanding work each day to serve the public. We're grateful for them.

Mayor Henry and his leadership team remain committed to providing the best solid waste services possible. We share in the frustration of the public about the services that aren't meeting expectations. Our residents and neighborhoods deserve better. We will make this right.”

The city has presented a timeline that projects the bankruptcy proceedings for Red River will conclude within the next four-to-six months.

A sticking point that could drag this into the summer is that any new contractor would need to provide a number of its own trucks, just as Red River has the last four years.

Jehl says he wants to see the adoption of his plan or a plan of Henry’s own before the annual State of the City address, to provide longer-term security and peace of mind to ratepayers.

The address is slated to take place Friday, Feb 11.

Zach joined 89.1 WBOI as a reporter and local host for All Things Considered, and hosted Morning Edition for the past few years. In 2022, he was promoted to Content Director.