Trashy Questions

Lois Finkelman had questions about Dallas' residential recycling program before last month. Now, both the city councilwoman and the city's auditor are, you might say, a lot more curious. Just how does a driver make two trips across the scales in the same truck with a purportedly new 2,000-pound load of trash in just a few minutes? Just how much do trucks owned by Community Waste Disposal really weigh on average when they are empty?

Without real reporting requirements, how can anyone be certain how much city residents are setting out at the curb, how much the company is selling to recyclers or how much of what is being carefully washed and placed at the curbs by environmentally mindful Dallas residents is going to a landfill?

Finkelman and the auditor's office say the city is trying to answer questions of accountability and others raised by a Dallas Observer May 16 cover story "Garbage In, Garbage Out." The article, a result of a three-month investigation into the Dallas-based Community Waste Disposal's operating practices, revealed that the company's records point to serious discrepancies in what has been officially told to the city about how much is being collected and about other aspects of the program.

The company is nearing the end of the second year of a five-year contract worth up to $17 million, depending on how much the company tells the city it has collected in its own trucks, weighed on its own scales and sold to its own handpicked vendors in unspecified amounts and at prices the company is allowed to keep secret. Each of the city's 232,000 water-utility customers must pay for the service each month even if they don't use it. Right now, it costs each water customer about $9 a year, but that amount could increase if Community Waste Disposal tells the city it is collecting more and more at the curb.

Before this month's review, the company had so little real oversight from the city that no one at any level of government could say for sure how much the company collected or how much it sold or dumped. Just about the only thing the company was contractually required to provide the city were cryptic monthly tonnage collection and ambiguous vendor sales tonnage reports.

Jody Puckett, the city's department of sanitation services director who oversees the residential recycling program, maintains that she has only mundane questions about the program. The auditor, she says, has delivered some information to her at her request but she was not immediately prepared to talk about or characterize any findings.

"I felt like there were some weaknesses we wanted to look at. We're looking at them. I'm not changed from that. I think the auditor's information may help us tighten up a few things, but all in all I don't think there's a major conspiracy here. I just don't," she says. "I was going to look into it. Ms. Finkelman sent me a note saying, 'Hey, what do you think?' and I said, 'Well, I'm going to use the auditor to help me look at some processes and practices,' and that's what we're doing."

Representatives from the city auditor's office and the Department of Sanitation quietly paid a visit to the company's offices in early June to try to find out what the records show, according to city correspondence obtained by the Observer.

Greg Roemer, company president, stopped talking to the Observer during work on the original story. He did not return a telephone call for this article either.

Paul Garner, senior manager with the city auditor's office, says questions that were publicly raised about the program stepped up the urgency for an immediate review.

"I think the accountability issue, the trucks driving in and out within a few minutes, that's what we're looking at," he says. "We are determining whether there are some initiatives we should be addressing as a city."

Garner says it's too early to say what the city has learned from reviewing company records, but that a report will be delivered to individual council members who seek it or to the whole council during the next few weeks. The auditor's office will also decide if regular, more thorough reviews are necessary, he says.

"Is there something there that we think we need to do something about, or is it unfounded?" he says. "Or is it something that we want to look at on a full-scale audit in the next year's audit plan?"

Finkelman, a fan of recycling and a proponent of the current review, says she wants to find out if what the company has been telling the city for the past two years is reliable.

"I certainly have some concerns about the accuracy of what's been reported [by Community Waste Disposal] and am looking forward to the results of the auditor's report," she says. "I want some reassurance that the numbers are accurate."

Finkelman says every city contract should have accountability built into it and that Community Waste Disposal is no different.

"We're not saying that they weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing. What we were saying is that we wanted assurances that what they were reporting was indeed accurate and reflective of what was going on out there...We need to know exactly what's going on, and if there are problems, they need to get addressed," she says. "There are a number of issues that needed clarification."