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City officials talk trash (issues)

Much trash talking was going on, but no taunting penalties resulted — just a decision by Mount Airy officials to buy a second grapple truck to aid sanitation collections while scrapping an earlier proposal for brush carts.

Shirley Brinkley, a former city commissioner, also weighed in on a new automated garbage system that is part of this mix during a meeting last Thursday night.

All those developments occurred after an update by Public Works Director Mitch Williams to the city council on the automated system implemented earlier this year, which the council had requested after the system got up and running.

Williams said it is working well overall, including meeting one goal of reducing personnel costs through the acquisition of two side-loading automated garbage trucks at a total cost of $760,000.

This allows the emptying of trash carts to be controlled inside the cab, rather than by workers on the outside who faced dangers filling trucks from the rear under the old method.

“We’re down to 11 from 15,” Williams said of the number of employees in the sanitation division, which has occurred due to attrition with turnover in the department.

This is saving about $150,000 per year in personnel costs, he added.

Brush carts nixed

Last January’s decision by city officials to buy the automated trucks was accompanied by another proposal to provide 4,500 brush carts — costing $270,000 — for residents to place yard waste in such as clippings and tree limbs under the new process.

The idea was that homeowners would cut up limbs, for example, into small pieces that could fit into the carts and be side-loaded into the automated trucks.

The majority of commissioners didn’t believe there was a wholesale need for those carts among the citizenry, but elected to see how the new system progressed over the course of the year and revisit this topic after further study.

And the final verdict is thumbs down for the brush carts, Williams recommended Thursday night in his update, with which the commissioners subsequently concurred.

“These automated trucks are not made for brush,” he explained.

About 60% to 70%t of brush piles put out for collection each week are either too large or long to fit into carts, or cans on the automated trucks.

This requires employees to manually load the brush or it must be picked up by the city’s lone grapple truck at a later date.

It‘s difficult for workers to lift even smaller brush into the front receptacles of the vehicles, based on Williams’ presentation. And once in a truck can, the brush does not dump easily into a hopper in back and sometimes topples out from the top of the truck into the street.

Instead of adding the brush carts, Williams suggested buying a second grapple truck at an estimated cost of $185,000. A grapple, or knuckleboom, truck is a specially designed vehicle featuring a retractable arm with a “grappling” hook that picks up bulky items.

This would allow large brush piles around town to be removed quicker and more efficiently, along with bulky items such furniture discarded during spring cleanup campaigns.

The target collection time is one week for “typical-size piles,” according to the presentation. That can intensify during the spring events — complicated by a breakdown of the one grapple truck this year and relying on a private contractor at a cost of about $7,000.

“Nobody likes to see couches and mattresses out in the street,” the public works director said in describing the need for a backup vehicle.

The commissioners agreed with Williams’ recommendation to buy the grapple truck while sidestepping the brush carts, which can still be purchased by citizens wanting those containers at $65 each.

Board members approved 5-0 a budget amendment Thursday night for the truck acquisition.

“Challenges” of automation

The implementation of the new automated system has been smooth overall, although there have been snags — some literally.

“Drivers have quickly adapted to the new trucks,” said Williams, who acknowledged certain adjustment issues along the way.

“We have had some overhead utility line conflicts,” he said, resulting from the new trucks being tall and encountering low-hanging wires. This included a telephone line being hit and also an electrical line that caused poles to fall and interrupt service to a half-dozen residents.

Williams said the sanitation unit has worked with utility providers to get lines raised in problem areas.

Meanwhile, there have been issues with trash cart lids being left open and carts turning over after being emptied, especially along streets lacking curbs that provide some stability.

Former South Ward Commissioner Shirley Brinkley addressed this during a public forum at the meeting.

“I’ve seen more with the lids open than closed,” Brinkley said of the carts, which causes problems including the containers being filled with rain water.

It is difficult for residents with physical limitations to turn the carts upright after they are turned over and left that way, the former commissioner mentioned, citing a wrist injury to one person. Brinkley also said broken glass littered one street.

Williams says crews are trying to minimize this problem by becoming more skillful with the joystick controls inside the automated trucks in an effort to leave carts and lids in the proper position.

“Hopefully as time goes on, that will go better.”

Williams said there also have been problems with carts awaiting emptying being improperly placed by residents.

Officials have said the carts should be positioned along streets with handles facing toward the residences, since the automated trucks can’t turn the carts around to the proper side. Requiring personnel to leave the cab and move the carts to that position defeats the purpose of the automated system.

Just like most other aspects of society, COVID-19 has been an obstacle, including multiple drivers having to be quarantined.

“It has been a challenge to keep drivers on the trucks,” the public works director said.

“We could not have started automation at a worse time because of COVID.”