Council, City Reach Stalemate Over Garbage Fines

Dec 5, 2018

Credit Red River Waste Solutions

Tensions were high between City Council and the City of Fort Wayne Tuesday night as they discussed possible fines against Red River Waste Solutions for late or missed pickups, and possible resulting rebates for customers.

Second District Councilman Russ Jehl has spent the last several months calling for rebates to garbage and recycling ratepayers in Fort Wayne in response to issues with garbage collection. He suggested a $12 credit to consumers -- an estimated cost of $960,000, paid for by fines collected from Red River.

Adrienne Maurer is a member of Mayor Tom Henry’s Working Group on Garbage and Recycling, and spoke on behalf of the group Tuesday.

“Granting a rebate for one month of service, or however it was going to be applied, in the opinion of the committee was not something that was going to improve service,” Maurer said. She argued more fines would lead to direct loss of revenue from Red River, which could hurt efforts to meet payroll, thus leading to problems retaining drivers and attracting new ones.

The contract as a whole was the main focus of discussion Tuesday night, particularly with regard to fines. Fort Wayne solid waste manager Matt Gretz says $542,500 in fines have been collected for 2018 thus far but At-Large councilman John Crawford noted that’s only one-fourth of what the city’s contract with Red River calls for.

The current method of fining mirrors how the city fined former solid waste management firm Republic, which doesn’t match the method laid out in Red River’s contract.

“Why did we spend $98,447 for a consultant, $9,500 for outside legal counsel to draw up a contract we’re not following? If you wanted to fine them the way you did before, why didn’t you write the contract that way?” Crawford asked.

“I will admit, I did want that change made and I overlooked it, and it didn’t get made, and I will take that responsibility,” Gretz responded.

Jehl expressed disappointment over the city’s reluctance to reimburse ratepayers, calling the decision to push back against additional fines “derelict.”

“You said, ‘We are behind the eight-ball because of this contract, the only part that we control is the fining.’ And now you say, ‘We’ve decided to not follow the fines,’” Jehl said. “I am frustrated by that, I am distraught by that, I think it is an insult to the ratepayers.”

The conversation then turned toward whether Red River was in material breach of its contract. At-Large councilman Michael Barranda, who initially brought the idea before city council in August, stands by his assessment that Red River has exceeded the threshold needed to call for a breach.

“It would seem to me in a contract that has not defined material breach... it seems like common sense would dictate that if we’re fining more than the price of the contract, we’ve now reached a point where we can identify a material breach,” Barranda said.

The City has maintained that a “material breach,” in court, has only held up in cases when firms have either abandoned a jurisdiction or failed to meet payroll, neither of which has taken place in Fort Wayne.

Gretz says 311 calls are down 67 percent since collection routes changed November 5. After an average of 2,200 calls per week in October, there were 657 in November, according to numbers presented by Gretz.

But members of council argued the numbers could be understated, noting the reasons why some residents wouldn’t call.

“People give up calling to 311 because they get tired of hanging on there, they give up sometimes because they’ve called multiple times and never got service anyway, and sometimes one person on the block calls when everybody else got missed,” said Crawford.

The contractual threshold for one week of calls is 83, a far cry from the 657 currently averaged. While Gretz assured council that Red River is “working its way down” to 83, Crawford asked what happens if the number stagnates at 657.

“You can’t ask the citizens of Fort Wayne to say, ‘This is acceptable for seven years,’” Crawford said, before calling the contract “inadequate” for its failure to define a material breach.

Maurer told Crawford that Red River meeting its contractual requirement of 83 is the goal.

Fourth District Councilman Jason Arp, who serves on the Working Group, also made note of the negative impact Council’s public reactions have had on Red River’s operation. Arp says when the material breach measure was brought forward in August, four drivers left the company.

“Even when we had our discussion a few weeks ago about having some sort of a refund, the company lost drivers because the drivers are in fear that the company’s not going to be around, so it sets them back on their ability to perform,” Arp said.

While no resolution was met and no fines were altered, council concluded by striking a conciliatory tone with Gretz in particular, complimenting his willingness to work as a liaison for the city and Red River with the body.