ZURIK: Council member calls for level playing field for trash collectors

Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 10:04 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 19, 2023 at 6:11 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A New Orleans garbage contract that had been one of the lowest in the area was rebid and the new contracts will cost taxpayers millions of dollars more each year.

The city dumped its contract with Metro Disposal as residents complained about inconsistent pickups and garbage left for weeks on city streets. However, the owner of Metro says during that time, the city wasn’t fully paying its bill, and bilked the company out of millions of dollars, forcing the company into bankruptcy.

Jimmie Woods and his family started Metro Disposal in the early 1980s. The company could be called an American success story, growing from one truck to over 100, and eventually securing a lucrative contract with the City of New Orleans to pick up trash in Service Area 2, which includes New Orleans East, Lakeview, and Gentilly. For years, residents who responded to University of New Orleans Quality of Life polls ranked garbage collection as one of the top city services.

Read more: Ousted contractor says Cantrell administration orchestrated trash crisis

“We started with one truck that my dad left us. We drove it. We fixed it. We did all the maintenance. We washed it. We painted it. And we worked on it in terms of driving it. We hopped. My brothers and I took turns doing that,” Woods said.

However, Woods says Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration refused to pay him for every home he collects from. His contracted rate was $13.60 a month per home, but Woods says the Cantrell administration would only allow him to bill for about 66,000 homes, even though his company was actually picking up trash from more than 70,000 homes. He says the refusal to pay for the extra homes cost the city about $1 million per year.

Woods says on top of that, when the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida hit, the city refused to pay extra money for the extra tonnages of trash the company hauled away. That’s despite a clause in the contract that outlined extra pay in a declared emergency. Federal funds existed for the city to cover the expense, so extra payments would not have come out of the city’s budget.

Woods says the underpayment and refusal to tap into those federal funds during an emergency severely impacted his company. He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October.

“The city made it very difficult for us to do business,” Woods said. “Some might say that it was intentional because obviously, the beneficiary of Metro’s plight was a political supporter of the mayor. I’ve heard that from many places. On the other hand, perhaps it was just mismanagement on the city’s part. One of those two things is correct. I’m not sure which.”

Woods says one of the beneficiaries of him losing the contract is IV Waste, which was awarded a new contract for garbage collection after the city parted ways with Metro Disposal. Woods believes he may have lost the contract because of political payback.

During Cantrell’s first run for mayor, Woods was a vocal supporter of her opponent, Desiree Charbonnet.

GF Default - Campaign finance reports for early mayoral candidates show Charbonnet with...
GF Default - Campaign finance reports for early mayoral candidates show Charbonnet with financial advantage

IV Waste’s owner, Sidney Torres, formed a Political Action Committee which spent $366,000 campaigning against Charbonnet, including commercials that urged voters not to vote for her. Torres did not directly contribute to Cantrell’s campaign and did not directly support her, but political analysts say the negative advertisements helped Cantrell win.

The newly-signed trash contracts with IV Waste and Waste Pro will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The city was paying Metro $13.60 a house for twice a week collection and Richard’s Disposal got $13.75. Those numbers were among the lowest in the area. Jefferson Parish residents pay $18.76 per month. St. Tammany residents pay $22.40.

Under the new contract, IV Waste makes $21.28 for once-a-week collection. Waste Pro gets $22.88.

IV Waste is taking over Area 2 West, which includes the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East after a...
IV Waste is taking over Area 2 West, which includes the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East after a vote today.(Fox 8)

Woods believes his support of Charbonnet may have made him a target.

“But there are some folks who believe that either myself or Metro had been too politically active, and perhaps, in a way that certain people in City Hall didn’t like. And they had an opportunity to get a pound of flesh from us and they’re doing that,” Woods said.

New Orleans Councilmember Joe Giarrusso says he wants a fair playing field for all contractors, but also wants the city to watch every penny it spends. The Metro Disposal contract cost taxpayers about $11 million a year, but the new contracts cost about $19 million.

“I want them to be treated fairly,” Giarrusso said. “Not only is it costing a lot, but now I have to play a lot more defense with residents who are saying ‘why am I paying for twice a week pickup and I’m only getting it once or not even that much?’ And now I have to explain to them how much the expenditures have increased, which is basically those contracts. I think part of the answer is [the city] felt like, ‘Here’s the deal, you have to abide by the deal and we’re not going to deviate from the deal.’ But that’s a really tough way, in my view, to look at contracts.”

The city splits its trash pickup. Waste Pro and IV Waste handle Lakeview, Gentilly, and New Orleans East, the area Metro used to work; and Richard’s Disposal handles the rest of the city. While the city pays IV Waste and Waste Pro more than $22 a house, Richards is still only making $13.75. And while the city pays IV Waste and Waste Pro for every home they pick up, it has still capped the total number of homes Richard’s is allowed to bill for.

“I mean I said this last week at the committee meeting, it’s not fair. It’s an unlevel playing field. How can you expect Mr. Richard at $13.75 a can to compete with other contractors who are getting $23 to $28 a can? You just can’t, because those other companies can pay their people more money. So we have to make sure there’s parity between those issues,” Giarrusso said.

Woods says the limited funds from the city forced his company into Bankruptcy. He is still in business and is trying to survive with commercial contracts. He says he’s working to repair his image and his company.

“This administration is working overtime to not only destroy my family, my family name, and my business. And of course, I feel a certain way about it. But I am so prayed up, my family is so prayed up. And we believe what’s for us, we’re going to get and it’s just a process. We’re going to go through this and we’re going to be around in some form or fashion. This is our home, we’re not going anywhere. We’ve seen mayors come and go, we’ve seen council members come and go, and some of them have done significant good in the city, and others have been duds. And I think this is one of those times, in my view, where it’s a dud and we’re going to survive it,” Woods said.

FOX 8 reached out to IV Waste for a response to this story. In a statement, owner Sidney Torres, IV said:

“To create an impression that I, or any company that I am associated with, supported or helped the campaign of Mayor Cantrell is absolutely false. Although the Cantrell Campaign reached out to me for financial support, I repeatedly declined.

When I decided not to run for mayor myself, I also decided to help focus the candidates on issues important to the City’s future. I sponsored a debate about those issues and each of the invited candidates agreed to participate. At the very last minute, the Charbonnet Campaign reneged and refused to confront issues crucial to the success of our city. I publicly addressed Ms. Charbonnet’s absence, and her campaign then personally attacked me and my motives.

It was only then that my PAC responded to these personal attacks following my public statements.

I have never supported Mayor Cantrell, but only responded to the attacks leveled by the Charbonnet Campaign. To suggest that I, or a PAC associated with me, directly or indirectly helped Mayor Cantrell is deceitful. The only benefit received by the Cantrell Campaign was the exact same benefit received by each of the City’s citizens - a clarification of the candidacy of Ms. Charbonnet. I have never sought nor received any favors or special treatment from Mayor Cantrell and IV Waste works hard every day to earn the privilege of providing our citizens with superior garbage collection at a fair price - without any fear of or favor from Mayor Cantrell.”

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