By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
When a $10-per-month increase in garbage and trash collection fees was approved by Atmore City Council members in May and went into effect July 1, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Calvin Grace.
Before the price hike went into effect, the city’s streets and sanitation department director suffered the loss of three of his employees who held the necessary license to drive the trucks into which the solid waste was collected.
His department was also negatively affected by a sudden decline in the number of inmates furnished by the Alabama Department of Corrections under its Community Work Program (CWP).
“We weren’t getting but one or two inmates, and we lost three guys back-to-back (including the death of 20-year veteran James Tolin) that had CDLs,” Grace explained. “We had guys driving garbage trucks in the morning, and they had to get off the garbage trucks and get on a tractor in the afternoon.”
He said the public didn’t seem to care about the department’s problems, only that the price had gone up and the quality of service had gone down.
“It was like a ‘perfect storm’ kind of thing; that’s what happened,” Grace said. “I caught some flack because the increase came right at the time where people left us. The cost went up, but the service slowed down. That made it real difficult to deal with.
“I had people call and bless me out, saying ‘our cost went up, but you’re not picking my trash up on time.’ The cutback in state inmates hurt me a lot, too. We got away from using inmates on the back of our garbage trucks because we might have them today and not have them tomorrow because (the state) pulled them away.”
That situation has begun to settle, but the impact of inmate labor isn’t nearly what it had been.
“At one time, we were getting 26 inmates,” Grace recalled last week. “We had two different crews, and it worked out real good. Now, like today, we requested 10 but got only seven.”
He pointed out that he’s now unable to take advantage of the program and go back to the two-dozen-a-day CWP workers because of the before-mentioned shortage of qualified supervisory personnel.
“At first, the state was holding them back (mainly due to the COVID pandemic), but they’ve released a little bit and we seem to be getting what we want now,” he said. “We’ve been having 10 each day the last two or three weeks, so we’ve been upping the game. We could probably get more, but I don’t really have anybody to watch that many, now that we lost three of our most experienced employees.”
The department is almost back to full strength, with 19 employees on board and one new hire expected, and should soon be back to normal, as far as trash collection goes.
“We should be back on schedule once we get them trained up,” Grace said. “We’ve got some people who don’t live in the city limits, so they don’t know where all the streets are. You’re not going to learn that overnight. Atmore is small, but you’ve got to know the streets, got to know the town.”
He also explained that until his men are properly trained, trash pickup is a secondary priority.
“We have to pick up the garbage, but we don’t have to pick up the trash every day,” he said. “We can’t leave the garbage there; it’s got to be up by the end of the day, or the health department will get involved.”
The city sanitation director said more good news lies in the near future for those who have been complaining of stopped-up or overgrown ditches within the city. Kevin Dunsford, who handles equipment for the city at the local landfill, has agreed to do as much of the work as he can until things are caught up.
“He’s real good with equipment and he’ll be a great help,” Grace said. “He can’t do it by himself, though, so we’ll still have help him some. It’s going to take a while to do it, but we are going to make it happen.”
Ditches along Brown and Maxwell streets, from where the majority of complaints have come, will be the first to be tackled. Grace said that over the years, the concrete pipes that drain the ditches have deteriorated. New pipes cost between $200 and $300 and are the property owner’s burden.
“People can’t afford to buy the pipe, and that’s one of the problems,” he said. “Another problem is that some have a span with 80 feet of pipe that’s been there 40 or 50 years, and they’re stopped up. We’re going to dig that up and put in two 40-foot driveways.”
He promised that residents would see improvement in the near future and asked that they bear up a little longer.
“Eventually, we’re going to step it up,” he said. “People just need to be patient; we’re going to get it.”