The city of Atlanta is spending $12 million in emergency contracts to pick up trash due to staffing shortages, and collections have been hampered because of outdated equipment, according to an audit released last month.
Atlanta’s Department of Public Works’ solid waste division has a staffing goal of at least 90%. But the audit found the solid waste crew has not been staffed beyond 84% since fiscal years 2021 and 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, the department suffers from low morale, with an average of 23% of collection crew staff absent from work every day.
The audit makes 10 recommendations, including more investment in staffing, vehicles, equipment and data management. Mayor Andre Dickens administration agreed with all of them.
The audit found that 60% of the department’s vehicles and 95% of its’ equipment used for solid waste services are outdated. That has led to mechanical failures and delays in services.
Atlanta’s yard trimmings collections crew was once delayed by nearly two hours due to issues with trucks at the substation, the audit found. In another instance, the right-of-way maintenance crew had to complete grass cutting with weed whackers because their mower broke.
Atlanta’s auditors said DPW hasn’t replaced any vehicles since fiscal year 2022. The auditors said replacing disposal vehicles and investing in facilities, equipment, and employees would improve work conditions.
Only 5% of the city’s solid waste collection vehicles are within their life cycles, according to the audit.
Last month, Atlanta senior performance auditor Ijegayehu Jones told city council’s utilities committee that the department is already in the process of implementing some of the recommendations.
Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. said he agrees with the audit. He said they’ve rebounded from COVID, their staffing is currently 84%, and much of their work to address these issues started before the audit. The department has a staffing goal of not less than 90%, according to the audit.
“We have worked well with the new (Human Resources) commissioner in getting our staffing levels to the appropriate levels and our performance has also improved,” Wiggins said last month.
Wiggins said they’re investing $14 million into more vehicles, but the vehicles are on backorder due to nationally high demand. He also alluded to wanting more funds in fiscal year 2024 for more vehicle orders.
“We’re still competing with the private sector,” Wiggins said.
City Councilmembers Antonio Lewis, Howard Shook, Andrea Boone and Jason Winston voiced empathy with the department’s hardships in maintaining trash disposal staff. They acknowledged it as a difficult, dangerous industry filled with low-wage jobs.
The councilmembers urged the department to ask City Hall for more support.
The audit was done at the request of the council’s utilities committee after the city revised its solid waste fee structure. It also occurred due to lawsuits alleging the city’s solid waste fees for multifamily and commercial properties were an illegal tax.
The city settled the lawsuits for $19 million last year.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com