Denver Government

Denver's Trash System Needs to Pick Up the Pace, Auditor Warns

Can Denver avoid a big mess?
Can Denver avoid a big mess? Chalabala/iStock
Is the city ready for pay-as-you-throw, its new solid waste collection system?

In an audit conducted as Denver City Council discussed and then approved the expanded waste services ordinance in June, the Denver Auditor’s Office found that the Solid Waste Management Division of the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure lacks a strategic plan and doesn’t have the proper resources to implement the ordinance's provisions.

The solid waste collection audit
 was already underway when council approved the ordinance, and it became a priority as the city considered changes to trash pickup, according to Auditor Timothy O’Brien.

The city will begin rolling out the new system in January. Residents will choose the size of their trash can, pay between $9 and $21 a month, and get weekly recycling pickup and compost bins as part of the deal.

But the audit found that those charges are smaller than in other cities with volume-based pricing, and officials aren’t sure whether the fees will be high enough to make the system self-sustaining. The audit also highlighted other challenges that may prevent the program from meeting its goal of raising Denver’s waste diversion rate, or how much waste is recycled or composted rather than sent to a landfill.

“The key takeaway is that they don't have a strategic direction,” O’Brien says. “They need a strategic plan. That is fundamental.”

The Solid Waste Management Division isn't alone in this lack of a strategic plan, O'Brien says, noting that the problem is pervasive throughout the city. A strategic plan lays out the objectives, goals and needs of a department, including a mission and vision statement and specific ways it plans to measure success.

In this case, the lack of a strategic plan is reflected in such challenges as fleet management and understaffing. The audit found that nearly half the division’s waste collection trucks and other vehicles have only two years left in their estimated remaining useful life, which is eight years on average. Between 2019 and 2021, the city spent over $10 million on repairs to those vehicles. New trucks cost approximately $350,000, and the audit determined that Solid Waste Management does not have a long-term strategy to handle replacements.

It also doesn’t have enough people to drive the trucks. As of June, the city had a 21 percent driver vacancy rate, and the audit warned that rate could double when the city needs to add more drivers for expanded recycling and composting services. And its current drivers aren’t satisfied at work, either, the audit suggested. Many told Auditor’s Office investigators that they were looking to change jobs.

Mandatory overtime might play a role in that dissatisfaction. “We've all worked plenty of overtime in our careers,” O’Brien says. “But when it's ongoing, forever, it takes its toll, and that probably is reflected in the vacancy rate of the number of drivers.”

At the beginning of 2022, the city changed its trash and recycling pickup routes and schedules for the first time in fifteen years. But the audit found no documentation showing that the changes made collection services more reliable or consistent, much less documentation of how and why Solid Waste Management decided to make those changes.

According to DOTI, which houses Solid Waste Management, it developed the new routes using one mapping software and then switched to a new system, so it couldn’t access the documentation and provide it to the auditor. In its response to the audit, DOTI notes that the person who designed the new routes had retired by the time the auditors requested documentation.

The audit, which was conducted from February through July, came at a particularly difficult time of transition for the division, DOTI says, given the route changes and the surge of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which strained the division’s workforce further than usual. In fact, Deputy Manager Margaret Medellin told the November 17 meeting of the Independent Audit Committee that fourteen drivers were out with COVID when the route changes took effect.

“We do not see the delays in service, the additional need for overtime, to be a result of the re-route, but rather a result of this omicron surge,” Medellin continued. “On the contrary, we think the re-route provided a much-needed refresh of our operations.”

Mendellin told the committee that the department is in the process of modernizing its software and has created an Office of Strategic Analytics to improve operations. The department had to deal with hiring freezes and $3 million in budget cuts during the pandemic, she said, assuring the committee that the division is working to rebound by paying industry standards to attract new drivers and purchasing new trucks.
click to enlarge
Trash behind a residence in the Skyland neighborhood.
Michael Roberts
According to DOTI, things are picking up at Solid Waste Management as the division prepares for change. “Denver is poised to become an industry leader in its implementation of a volume-based trash collection program,” DOTI says in a statement. “We acknowledge it will be challenging and imperfect in a post-pandemic world, but we won’t let that challenge deter us.”

DOTI is addressing all of the issues raised by the auditor, and says it is accepting the audit's recommendations. It has agreed to implement changes by December 31, 2023, and also develop a strategic plan by then. O'Brien says that the department has been very cooperative; the auditor's office will look at the division again after the changes are made.

But DOTI isn't waiting to start improving. At the November 22 City Council Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting, DOTI presented a contract to secure drivers and trucks for seven additional routes a week — which equals about 28,000 homes — over the next three years.

It has ordered six collection trucks that should arrive by spring, as well as 25 new compost trucks that will be delivered throughout 2023.

“With these additions," DOTI's statement notes, "and by phasing in compost later in the summer, we hope to minimize any challenges that arise.”

But there's yet another challenge on the horizon: On November 8, Denver voters approved the Waste No More ballot measure, which requires all businesses, including apartment buildings, to provide composting and recycling services; it also mandates that construction waste is disposed of properly, and dictates recycling and composting at large events.

That measure starts rolling out in 2024, just about the time the Denver Auditor's Office should be looking at the department again.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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