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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2008

Toledoans wary of automated garbage pickup

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Bowling Green resident Angela Austin thinks the trash-talkers in Toledo should put their fears of change aside.

Wood County's largest city has for years been among an increasing number of American communities that use automated garbage trucks.

Now, Toledo wants to switch from its more expensive - three workers-to-a-truck system - to a single driver-operated automated garbage truck.

"Would you rather have white trash bags and whatever garbage laying all up and down the streets?" Ms. Austin asked. "And have the poor trash guys get needles stuck in their hands and trash fall on their heads as they lift the cans into the truck?"

On the other side of the fence is 92-year-old Peter Rywalski of South Toledo. He is among Toledoans used to placing whatever they want - a dozen trash bags, boxes, even a sofa - at the curb and it's hauled away, no questions asked.

But if Toledo's plan moves forward from a planned 10,000-home pilot program starting in May to a citywide system, all of that will be over.

"I know they brought this up to save money, but has anybody really studied how it will be for older people, for whom these trash containers are too heavy?" Mr. Rywalski said.

After the announcement last week of the pilot program for automated trash trucks, Toledoans began to list concerns and complaints. The bottom line for many: We like it the way it is.

Edna Altmanshofer, 60, of Point Place said many of her neighbors will be unable to move the 96-gallon container that's required for the robotic arms attached to automated trash haulers.

Bill Franklin, the city's director of public service, said residents will be able to receive smaller containers.

"They come in 96, 64, 48, and 32 gallons," he said. "We are probably going to try and start everyone off with a 96-gallon size."

Recyclable material will be picked up, also by an automatic truck, from a 64-gallon container.

"Most of the seniors place one little bag at the curb and that's it," Ms. Altmanshofer said. "We have a lot of questions, and I just think they should stick with the system they have now since it's worked all these years, and I know they are trying to cut costs, but they can cut costs elsewhere."

The city administration trimmed about $10 million from its proposed 2008 general fund budget, which must be passed by council before the end of March.

Brenda Hagman of McKinley Avenue, a one-way street in East Toledo with parking on both sides, said she doesn't want one of those trucks on her road.

"When we have street cleaning, they can't make it down because of the cars on both sides," she said. "I want to know how this automated truck is going to lift cans up and over cars without damaging them."

City officials said they understand people have questions and may resist the change, but they are promising answers and savings in the millions.

Julian Highsmith, the city's commissioner of solid waste, said Toledo's goal is to have trash pickup completely automated by May, 2010, with the exception of some streets like Ms. Hagman's that are too narrow for the automated trucks.

Beginning in May, the trash pickup day for about 7,000 homes in three pockets of the city will be changed, the number of routes will be cut from 33 to 27, and the city will start the 10,000-home pilot program for automated garbage trucks.

Those cuts will save the city $460,000 from May 1 to Dec. 31, but the big savings start once the division of solid waste sheds more jobs from its payroll.

Moving to full garbage automation could save about $5.5 million in salary costs annually, but $2.5 million a year would be used to pay down the capital cost of equipment and containers, Mr. Franklin said.

The city would likely also have fewer worker's compensation claims.

Toledo officials say the proof is seen in other cities that have already made the switch.

Brian Craft, director of public works for Bowling Green, said that city has run the automated trucks for eight years with much success.

"The benefit for us is the employee doesn't have to get in and out of the truck so we don't have any workman compensation claims," Mr. Craft said. "The driver is warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and he just pulls up, watches a monitor, and uses joysticks to maneuver the arm."

It takes about eight seconds a stop as opposed to the nearly 35 seconds that it used to, Mr. Craft said.

Bowling Green residents complained at first too, for all the same reasons, he said.

"By the time we went citywide, people loved it," Mr. Craft said.

Akron started an automated trash pickup program in August, 2006.

Paul Barnett, Akron's public works manager, started working for the city 17 years ago and said he wishes they started their program then.

"The biggest bonus is that we have eliminated worker injury in sanitation," Mr. Barnett said. "We used to pay $440,000 for one year.•.•.•.• We normally would have 35 injuries annually, but this last year we had one."

The city dropped 25 full-time workers from its sanitation department, and reduced the number of routes.

"We probably dropped $1.7 million out of our budget when you consider manpower," Mr. Barnett noted. "If we tried to take those containers away from people now, they would probably storm city hall."

Dave Schlaudecker, executive director of Leadership Toledo, said he chaired a six-month study of solid waste in 1998 for the now defunct Corporation for Effective Government.

One of the main findings was to reduce costs by using automated trucks. "That study was paid for and sat on the shelf for years," Mr. Schlaudecker said. "We were for one-man trucks, not privatizing, so it was shelved by the city who clearly wanted to out-source the trash collection."

The study also called for curbside recycling, which the city enacted years later.

Robert Reinbolt, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's chief of staff, said limiting people's trash to one or two 96-gallon containers would force residents to recycle - which is at the center of Toledo's controversial $5.50 monthly trash fee.

The city of Columbus, one of the first in Ohio to use automated trash trucks, announced last month that residents who want their recyclables picked up at the curb would have to pay more, starting in June. The city charges a monthly household subscription fee of $8.25, up from $5 since City Council ended a $389,000 annual subsidy for curbside recycling.

Eight percent of Columbus residents recycle compared to about 28 percent in Toledo.

Mayor Finkbeiner has justified Toledo's fee by repeatedly saying Toledo has a "Cadillac" of trash collection because of the unlimited pickup.

The fee expires April 30 unless council renews it. Residents get a $2.50 discount if they pledge to recycle.

Mr. Finkbeiner urged City Council on Friday to continue the fee until at least May 1, 2010.

Some City Council members have suggested alternatives to the trash fee, including an idea from Councilman D. Michael Collins to charge Toledo residents who don't recycle $10 and nothing for those who do recycle at the curb side.

The automated truck pilot program will not cost anything for the city since several companies vying to sell Toledo its automated trucks and the needed rectangular containers will be providing the equipment free.

Mr. Reinbolt said the city has not considered mandatory recycling, as in some cities like New York and Seattle.

Seattle began warning residential customers in 2006 that if recyclable materials were found three times in trash receptacles, the city would refuse to collect the garbage until the items were removed.

"Recycling is a good thing because its saves landfill space," Mr. Reinbolt said. "But we prefer the voluntary approach and education."

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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