Besse and Clark clash over backyard garbage service

Last night, we reported on Winston-Salem Sanitation Director Johnnie Taylor's presentation to the public works committee of city council on operational concerns raised by employees.

To briefly recap, Taylor said he would request four new fully automated trucks to replace vehicles that are not equipped with air conditioning. Councilman Dan Besse offered a noncommittal response to the request in an interview, and said he was has not seen evidence that operating trucks without air conditioning poses a health and safety risk to workers, notwithstanding anecdotal accounts by employees to council.

Taylor also acknowledged a correlation between backyard trash collection, which requires employees to pull carts over ground, and injuries. He said that as the city has transitioned from universal backyard pickup to curbside pickup with some exemptions, the number of injuries has decreased. 

The committee, which is comprised of Besse, Robert Clark and Derwin Montgomery (Denise D. Adams was out for an illness, and Montgomery left midway through the meeting), separately considered a recommendation by the Citizens Organizational Efficiency Review Committee to require a doctor's note as a condition for residents to receive backyard garbage pickup. About 3.5 percent of Winston-Salem households are exempt from curbside pickup, compared to roughly 1 percent in other cities across the state, including Greensboro. The city estimates that the more stringent approach would reduce utilization of the special service and save the city $114,000.

Clark, who chairs the public works committee and who represents the affluent West Ward as the sole Republican on city council, took the position that the city needs to tighten up the program.

"Everybody else requires a physician's statement," he said. "I don't know why we don't. I think when you abuse a privilege you lose it. And we are abusing this privilege."

Besse, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward, has already staked out the opposing position.

"I think that's an assertion without evidence to back it up," he said last night. "The citizens committee's numbers are based on the estimate that our rate is three and a half times the other cities. They are making the assumption that we'd go down to about 758 people. So they're making the assumption that about 2,000 citizens are lying to us. I don't see any evidence to back that up. I think it's more likely to be a matter of difficulties in getting a doctor's note. People do legitimately have problems getting the cart to the curb. 

"If we anticipate we're going to get anything like $114,000 in savings," Besse continued, "we are assuming that approximately 2,000 households are either lying to us when they say they don't have anybody living there who's able to get the garbage to and from the curb without problems or there's a significant drop-off because there's too much difficulty getting the doctor's note."

Besse added that the other cities make it too difficult for disabled residents to get exemptions from curbside service.

Councilman James Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents the Southeast Ward, said he agrees with Besse.

"I think this is a situation where we have to assume that everybody's innocent until proven guilty," he said. "I think the people who signed up are truthful. And you have to take into consideration those who disproportionately may not have access to healthcare. That could put an undue burden on certain seniors and families."

Taylor is not a member of the public works committee, but he pledged to vote against it if it advances to full council for consideration.

Clark advocated shaming people who are abusing the system by publishing their names.

"My mother is 85 years old and she rolls her cart to the curb," he said. "Why are we three and a half times higher than the other cities? Give me the names. Print 'em."

Budget and Evaluation Director Ben Rowe told committee members that the cost savings from reforming the backyard collection program would allow the department to eliminate one crew, comprised of a driver and two laborers.

Besse and Clark agreed that a recommended minimum parking fine hike from $10 to $25 was too draconian, but that $15 was reasonable. Among North Carolina cities, Charlotte is alone in charging $25 for parking violations, while Durham charges $10, Greensboro charges $15 and Raleigh charges $20.

"I think 25 across the board is big city," Besse said. "We're medium-large.... That size of a jump cuts across our push to make our center city more shopper friendly."

The committee approved recommendations to increase fees for cemetery plots by 10 percent — translating into a rise from $700 to $770 — advancing them for consideration by the full council. Proposals to increase fees on trash collection from Dumpsters and standard curbside service, and eliminate brush collection failed to gain traction.

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