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Trimming trash collection could help workers
Gainesville solid waste employee Dustin Dean walks back to the truck Thursday after collecting trash at a house on Overlook Drive. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Doing Gainesville’s dirty work has its perks.

Before he reaches in the can to grab a bag of trash, Dustin Dean opens up a small cooler sitting on top of the garbage can and retrieves a bag of cold water bottles.

A gift.

As a frontman for the city’s solid waste division — call him a sanitation worker or a garbage man if you want — Dean’s impact on the city is more visible than that of most government officials.

And his effort does not go unnoticed.

The water bottles wait for him twice each week. Christmas comes with offers of pies, cakes and tips.

But the tokens of appreciation are small compared to the tons of garbage Dean and 11 other city employees take from city homes twice each week as they provide a service hardly any other city in the state offers.

Their work is grueling, gross and risky. Their starting pay is $9.26 an hour.

Each plastic bag they pick up holds hidden threats of broken glass and uncapped needles. Trash cans sometimes contain dead animals — or worse, live ones.

Each yard comes with threats from vigilant dogs, steep and uneven terrain or allegations of wrongdoing.

Each home produces varying amounts of trash that has to be hauled varying distances.

“The first two weeks, you’ll be the sorest ever. Your legs will be hurting — ankles, arms, everything,” Dean said.

After nine years with the city’s solid waste division, Jonathan Norman mostly drives the truck while Dean runs from yard to yard collecting the garbage. Both carry scars on their arms from broken glass and have coworkers who have been bitten by dogs.

Even from behind the wheel of the truck, Norman is aware of the dangers of the job.

With that in mind, Norman instructs his partner for the day to skip a house with a barking dog in the driveway, and reminds her to shift the weight of the garbage bags as she comes up the hill of a driveway carrying a heavy load.

Workers compensation claims are rampant in their division of the city. Dan Owen, superintendent of solid waste for Gainesville, said the claims stem from dog bites, broken glass sticking out of bags, twisted knees, needle sticks and strained muscles.

“It’s hard to say how often (there is a workers compensation claim),” Owen said. “We just have a lot of them.”

And even if they can avoid an on-the-job injury, like an athlete or a racehorse, garbage men have to be retired.

Owen points to an employee in his mid-40s and notes that he won’t be able to work in the field much longer on a daily basis. The work is just too hard and the bags are too heavy.

“You can’t use them every day on a garbage route,” Owen said. “They just can’t — they just can’t handle it every day.”

It’s one of the reasons Owen proposed that the city moved to a once-a-week curbside pick-up — to save his men.

If the city opts for the more traditional curbside service with roll-out containers, solid waste employees will only have to line the containers up with a machine on each truck that will do the heavy lifting for them.

The change will presumably allow the employees to stay in their positions longer and cut down on the number of workers compensation claims the city has to pay.

But the other — and perhaps, the main — reason Owen proposed changing city residents’ trash service was the economy.

Each year, he’s heard talk from the City Council as they’ve looked for ways to make his division less reliant on city tax dollars.

The council generally takes a stance that a service should be funded by its users. And since all city property owners do not receive city trash collection service, the council looks for ways to keep their tax dollars from supporting the service.

Instead, they try to make solid waste operate on the monthly fee collected from residents who receive the service. And this year, as tax revenues are at a low, it is even more imperative that the solid waste division stand on its own.

Owen was given a charge last year to find a way to do that. He looked at multiple options, including an aggressive “pay-as-you-throw” service that would bill residents based on how much they throw away.

The shift would have required residents to purchase special bags from local grocery stores — a change Owen felt would be too drastic.

So after nearly a year of study, Owen proposed last month that the city move from its twice-weekly back door service — which is rarely seen in most Georgia cities — to the more common weekly curbside service.

The proposal also included scrapping a contract for outside recycling service and taking the service in-house.

Though the plan would require the city to spend about $425,000 purchasing standard trash bins for all its customers and equipment that would dump the bins into the trucks, Owen said it would save the city about $300,000 and reduce the division’s work force by four people.

The city of Covington made a similar move in 1997, said Charles Hamlin, the supervisor of the city’s sanitation department. At the time Covington made the change, the city had grown to a point to which back door service was improbable, costly and causing employees to get hurt often.

“We can do it so much quicker (now),” said Hamlin.

While Hamlin said residents in Covington easily accepted the new service, the proposal in Gainesville has garnered flak from residents who are resistant to the change.

Dalton residents also were a little more hesitant when city officials there cut their solid waste service from a twice-weekly curbside service to a once-weekly service in 2008, said Benny Dunn, the director of public works in Dalton.

And though residents in Dalton complained at first, the complaints tapered off after about a month, Dunn said.

“It was a hot-button (issue) here, but the mayor and council just drew a line and said ‘this is what we’re going to do,’” he said.

The change saved Dalton officials about $150,000 a year and allowed the city to take one truck off the road, which was one of the main reasons city officials cut the service.

But there were other reasons, too, Dunn said.

“We were also hoping that by switching from twice to once a week we would see a spike in recycling,” said Dunn. “And we have.”

In 2009, Dalton’s 8,000 residential solid waste customers recycled about 1,000 tons of used materials — a 200-ton improvement over the year before, Dunn said.

Owen, too, had hoped that last month’s proposal would increase recycling in Gainesville.

Currently, residents can throw away as much as they want as long as they place it in a bag. The policy does not encourage residents to recycle, and Owen said some homes can generate as many as 20 bags of garbage.

But forcing residents to fit their weekly garbage in a 96-gallon container or pay more for the service might make them think more about recycling, Owen said.

“If we went with those cans and we controlled the amount they threw away ... they would have to increase what they recycle,” he said.

Also, if the city took residents’ recycling service in-house, Owen said the city could sell the recyclable material instead of paying $238,000 for the service each year.But the pressure against the change in Gainesville has been so intense that city officials back-tracked on the proposal after giving it initial approval last month.

Instead, the city will embark on an eight-week pilot program next week that cuts the frequency of the current back door service to once a week.

Once the pilot program ends, city officials will revisit the issue in July, holding two public meetings on the issue before making a final decision.

Owen is almost certain the once-weekly back door service won’t work, and said his employees worry about the added strain in the heat of the oncoming summer.

“It’s going to be tough,” Owen said. “But we’re going to do it.”