Officials say it's too early to tell success of county garbage plan

Photo by                                 bgf

Photo by bgf

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Recycling has nearly tripled. Neighborhoods no longer have trash trucks rumbling through five days a week. Complaints are down.

But one year after a controversial trash plan took effect in Gwinnett County, public sentiment and some of the goals are still a toss-up.

"I'm not sure that we have enough results to fully evaluate it," especially on goals such as stopping illegal dumping and reducing litter, said Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who was not in office when the controversial plan was enacted in March 2010 as part of a settlement with trash haulers after another plan was tossed out in court.

Nash said it was "very unusual" to go a week without getting calls or emails about the issue. But since she was not a part of the executive sessions where commissioners hashed out the settlement, she declined to comment on whether she would have voted on the plan.

While it constantly came up during the chairman's campaign earlier this year, Nash and her opponents all agreed that little could be done, since the county and its haulers had agreed to an eight-year contract that a judge signed off on.

"It's easy to sit back and say what I would do, but I wasn't privy to all the arguments," she said, adding that all she could do was focus on perfecting the service as it stands by increasing customer service and taking suggestions.

"It was a big, big change and there are some folks who are paying more now. You can understand how they are aggravated," she said. "It touches everybody in one way or another. ... Many of them have legitimate concerns. They deserve a chance to be heard and for us to at least give them good service."

Bob Gilbert, a 30-year Gwinnett resident, said he has little problem with the plan, which divides the county into service districts and assigns one hauler to each district. While one hauler who was left without county service sued again, the strategy gives business to six haulers, as opposed to the two who received contracts from the plan that was tossed out.

"I love the fact that only one garbage truck rolls past my home," Gilbert said, adding that he is a big recycler and was grateful to see more opportunities in the new service.

Since last July, when the service officially began, recycling has increased from about 2,000 tons each quarter to 5,700 tons, making it about 12.35 percent of the trash collected in unincorporated parts of Gwinnett's. The county has also hosted two recycling events.

Gilbert said he also doesn't mind paying for service on his tax bill, which has been one of the most disparaged aspects by homeowners.

In fact, in June, a judge tossed out a claim by Verland and Milagros Gilliam, a Loganville couple who believed the billing method violated their rights. (The Gilliam's lawsuit brought the county's expenses in attorney fees and court costs for solid waste litigation to a total of $186,758.50 over the past four years.)

"This whole thing is a piece of crap," Verland Gilliam said after the ruling. "I don't know how any judge could go along with this."

Like many, Gilliam also was upset that residents had no choice about haulers, or even if they could opt out of the service.

A year ago, county officials said they would consider an exemption for vacant homes, but county spokesman Joe Sorenson said last week the idea is still being evaluated and there are no immediate plans to change the policy.

Tax bills are due to come out in September with the second charge for trash service. (While last year's bills sought $328.21 for 18 months of service, the 2011 bills will be for 12 months. Sorenson said the amount has not been determined.)

For some, the controversy is quieting into a convenient, positive change, especially since calls to the county decreased from 5,000 per day to about 110 a day.

But Nash said the work is not over to improve the service for Gwinnettians.

"We obviously have some work to do from a pure customer service point of view," she said. "A year's time is not enough to evaluate a big, big program."