Stanford’s new trash fee billing: How is it working?
STANFORD — A new approach toward residential garbage hauling rolled out in Stanford in January, and complaints quickly followed, though no one expected the debut of a new billing process to be trouble-free.
Previously, Stanford residents’ fee for trash collection was included in their water bill. Individuals are now responsible for paying for pickup, billed every three months.
Now, almost five months after the first bills went out, the Stanford City Council is still hearing a rash of complaints from citizens.
Greg Butler, a Republic Services representative, heard some of those complaints at the council’s September meeting.
“What are you going to do right now about the ones that are paying bills that they don’t realize exactly what’s going on here?” asked council member Peggy Hester. “I don’t, as a matter of fact.”
She proceeded to recount a complaint she heard from a local citizen.
“I have a lady that lives on a limited income and she has contacted me four times about the billing process,” said Hester. “When she calls she’s very upset about the way she’s addressed on the phone. She didn’t get any kind of bill for months and months and, when she finally got somebody on the phone, they said, ‘You’re not on here. We don’t have your name. You don’t owe anything.’ The very next month she got an horrendous bill. So what are we going to do about that?”
After Butler stated “I apologize for her experience,” Hester immediately responded, “It’s not just her.”
Council member Ronnie Deatherage has also heard complaints, among them his own mother.
“It seems like it’s the elderly and my mom is included,” he said “She got a letter and she gave it to me … it said, ‘You’re delinquent and you’re going to be charged this’ …. blah, blah, blah. And she’d never gotten a bill before. I called. Didn’t get an answer. Didn’t get a return call back. But she did get a bill the next time and it was $125 or whatever. She was able to do that but there are several that’s not.”
“I thought they would at least say, ‘I’m sorry we didn’t get you for three months. We’ll catch you this month and we’ll start charging you from now on. But to go in and charge someone for nine months or a year …”
Deatherage went on to relate an issue where a garbage collection fee has gone unpaid – unwittingly.
“I also have a lady that moved into a house where the lady was deceased and she kept getting a letter from you all that was addressed to the deceased lady. She didn’t open it. It wasn’t addressed to her,” he said. “I guess, technically, she got a bill but it wasn’t addressed to her and she wasn’t going to open it.”
Butler again apologized but went on to explain that he had alerted the council and citizens that the transition process would not be easy.
“Last year, January of this year and in the spring, I was pretty clear that these invoices may not be getting to people right away. That they would be responsible for the full 2019 payment. I said we would work with folks if they contacted us and sought help,” he said. “It’s taken us a while to go through the addresses that we receive from you all via the water department to verify that they are billed, to understand who the folks are that we’re supposed to be billing. It’s an arduous, long process.”
“Again, I tried to express the realities of what a transition looks like and that it will not be an easy process. That these things will be going on.”
Council member Sara Givens asked Butler what someone should do if they are receiving a bill when there is no one in the house saying, “Do they call you? Do they just ignore the bill?”
“They should definitely call us,” said Butler. “They are receiving a service from us. If they’re not paying, they should call.”
Council member Dalton Miller interrupted Butler immediately.
“The problem is, people have called,” said Miller. “That’s the big problem. People call and, ‘Oh, you’re not our customer. You’re not on our customer list.’ I called myself and I’m like, ‘Yes, I am and this is my address.’ I had to go locally to get anything done for my own house.”
“I’ve heard you, and you’ve said you’re willing to work with people,” Miller said to Butler. “But, when we call, there’s no one to give us an answer or to speak with us about the matter because, ‘We’re not a customer.’ I don’t know what your all’s solution is to this problem.”
“I apologize sincerely for anybody’s experience with our call center,” Butler said. “I wish I had the time and resources to answer every call myself.”
Givens quickly readdressed the billing for trash collection when no one is in a residence.
“I don’t understand why people are being charged when there’s no one in the house and the service is not picking up trash,” she said. “My son called from Louisville and he said, ‘Mom, I’ve got a bill from something,’ and I said, ‘It’s Republic.’ He said, ‘There’s no one in the house. Why am I getting a bill?’ They’re not picking up trash but they’re charging him.”
“We are setting up invoices, right now,” Butler answered.
“So you are going around and whatever house there is, you’re billing that address?” Givens replied.
Council member Ella Mae Curlis expanded on Butler’s response that Republic Services is setting up invoices.
“You said that you’re setting up the accounts. When I called and finally got somebody that acted like they knew what they were doing, they told me that they could not set me up an account until I send the first check and they verified my address,” she said.
Curlis said the lady handling her call asked if she had gotten a postcard, which she had, and said she needed to mail a check payable to them so they would have an account number for her. She said she’s had no problem since.
“Then people come to me and say, ‘They say I don’t have an account. How are they sending me a bill?’” Curlis said. “When you call somebody, they tell you, ‘Well, we can’t talk to you because you don’t have an account with us.’”
When it comes to making payments on accumulated bills, Miller asked Butler where customers seeking help could go to find it.
“What if you are an elderly person just being billed and we’re nine months in,” he said. “You say you are willing to work with them in taking the money over a long period of time, but it’s hard for them to call and speak to someone to explain that to them. Who is the customer representative that they could speak to locally?”
Butler said there was no local representative that, due to the volume of customers, calls are taken through a call center.
Curlis also asked Butler about renters handling of former tenants bills.
“What about the people who live in these rental houses and they go off and don’t pay the water bill, the electric bill and the people that move in keep getting their bills, keep getting their garbage bill,” she said. “They didn’t live there and they’ve got a $100-something garbage bill.”
Butler told Curlis that Republic Services would work with customers on the issue saying, “We tend to trust people. If you call up and say you haven’t being living there and you’ve got this bill for three months. We’ll work it out.”
Stanford resident Barthenia Brown voiced her concerns over trash collection when citizen’s comments were called for by Mayor Scottie Ernst.
“I paid my bill when it first came out and it was $87 and something,” she started. “When I called, they said they didn’t have a record of that. So then they sent me another bill for $40-some and I paid that. Then they said, ‘Well, you need to pay the $80-something again.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not giving you anymore money. My canceled check has already come through.’ And they said, ‘If we don’t get more money, then we’ll discontinue your service.’ I said to them, ‘You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do. You’re not getting any more money from me.’”
Butler took her address and said he would look into it.
The trash collection topic was not limited to billing issues.
Curlis says garbage cans in the street and skipped service have also been a problem.
“For the last five weeks, I’ve been the garbage man on my street,” she said. “I get my golf cart and pick up everybody’s garbage can that they drop in the street. I got behind a state work truck (on a Monday pickup) that stopped on Lancaster Street three times to pick up cans that they (Republic) set back down and they fell over in the street.”
“You can see they stretch the arm out to pick it up then bring it back in to dump it. But they sit it right back down without extending the arm,” Curlis said explaining the tipped cans. “I watched them Monday. Mine is in my yard and they’re setting it in the street.”
She also noted that, where she lives, that Republic may empty some but not all garbage cans.
“They did my next door neighbor last week and they did mine this Monday, so I told the lady next door that her’s was next,” she said, adding that they often seemed distracted, taking from 3-5 minutes to collect a can.”
Butler says they are and there is a reason for that.
“We have put in a new truck in Stanford, he said. “Drivers are now on the left hand side. Previously, they were on the right hand side. They use to be able to see the arm pick up the cart but now they have to rely on the camera. Long term it’s much more efficient. Carts are less likely to be tipped over or to be dropped in the truck itself. It’s a learning process. Drivers are getting more and more acclimated.”
“We noticed it and we are training our drivers.”
Before Butler made his exit, Hester questioned the whole issue of trash collection.
“If I would like to hire a private person to pick up garbage at my house, you’re telling me that I can’t? I don’t have the right to do that?” she asked.
Butler answered, “That’s correct. Stanford has an exclusive contract. If you have your garbage picked up, then it has to be us.” He added that residents could take their trash to the landfill.
“I don’t really like anybody telling me that I don’t have the right with my own money to mow my yard, pick up a garbage can or whatever,” said Hester. “I think that should be my perogative. Regardless of what this council has decided for the entire city, I still have my individual rights.”
As Butler prepared to leave the meeting, Hester commended him for facing the council and hearing the ongoing questions and concerns with trash collection billing.
“As council people, we get calls, messages, people will come right to your house. And there are some irate people in this town right now, today, because of your company,” she said. “And I really don’t have the answers anymore because it keeps happening over and over. I haven’t seen a lot of improvements to tell you the truth.The volumes of calls and messages that I’m getting are still much more than I want to receive that I don’t have answers for.”
So You Know …
To reach the Republic Services customer service line, call 800-263-2000. To contact Stanford City Hall, call 606-365-4500.