Problem Solvers uncover new records showing efforts to fix Memphis trash collection problem

Problem Solvers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As the bags piled up earlier this summer, so did frustrations. During mid-to-late May and early June, WREG spoke with numerous Memphis homeowners about missed trash and debris pickups.

“This is a result of two weeks of trash and overflow,” Southeast Memphis homeowner Flora Childres told the Problem Solvers on May 14.

“We try to ensure the pile is not too high or too much. But it’s been out a month,” Joesetter Hines said of tree limbs and other debris on her Cordova street on May 29.

“We just wait. Where are we going to put the trash next?” Steve Cole said of the impact of the delays in his Cordova neighborhood on June 4.

Most of the people who spoke with the Problem Solvers were located in Cordova, a part of Memphis serviced by contractor Waste Pro.

At the time, they said they had reported their issues to the city.

“I have tried contacting Memphis 311 on several occasions,” Kenneth Oakes said on May 15.

But Oakes and others said their complaints would get closed without a resolution.

“They’re just closing the orders for whatever reason and it makes it look like they’ve performed the service and they haven’t,” Oakes said.

The Problem Solvers began asking Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration about the 311 issue when we covered Childres’s story on May 14. After numerous inquiries, a spokesperson responded on May 19 with the following statement: “Sometimes 311 service requests are closed out because of duplicate requests for the same residential address within the same day.”

But that explanation didn’t apply to the situations the Problem Solvers knew about, so we kept asking. The spokesperson then sent this statement on June 2: “We are aware that some 311 calls have been closed without being completed.”

During those weeks, the Problem Solvers also asked Strickland’s representatives if the mayor had a message for the public about the issue. Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen eventually addressed it at city council. He said they were in talks with Waste Pro.

“We have not paid them for several months for services so quite frankly we’re exercising every option we have under the contract,” he told council members in a virtual meeting on June 2.

Now, the WREG Problem Solvers have obtained new records that show exactly what those contractual options were.

In a letter dated June 18, about a month after the Problem Solvers started coverage, McGowen tells Waste Pro they are “in violation” of their contract, citing the missed collections affecting more than 13,000 customers. He referenced “311 requests closed without completing service,” later calling that “fraudulent” reporting by Waste Pro.

The letter goes on to say the company owes Memphis more than $300,000 in damages and that they need to fix the problems if they want “to continue business.”

Cordova homeowner Mary Ann Cole, who originally spoke with WREG with her husband Steve on June 4, said the actions of the Problem Solvers and then the city have paid off.

“All the sudden it seemed like every Thursday we were getting trash pickup [again],” she said. “I think because of Channel 3’s persistence and going back talking with people, re-talking with people and checking what was happening in the trenches, that really got their attention.”

Waste Pro released a statement to WREG: “Waste Pro is continuing to work closely with the City of Memphis. In spite of increased volumes of residential waste due to the virus, we are focusing on service to residents. We have also hired a new Division Manager to add more depth. In regard to the financial aspects of our contract with the City we continue to work with City staff to ensure we are meeting all contract requirements.”

City officials confirm Memphis is still using Waste Pro and has seen improvements, but are still looking for more.

The WREG Problem Solvers also asked if they plan to credit customers affected by the issues, but a city spokesperson did not respond to that question.

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