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L.A. trash customers say pickup deal stinks

L.A.’s new recycling program has some laudable goals, but the execution doesn’t look so hot in the underground parking lot of a condo building on Hazeltine Avenue in Van Nuys.

Hovsep Hajibekyan walked me into the trash room there Tuesday morning, and a big blue bin overflowed with a mini-Mt. Everest of boxes, bottles, paper and other recyclables.

“The pickup service is on and off,” said Hajibekyan, who is president of his homeowner association. “They miss two weeks, then they come, then they miss a week.… And the price went up. By a lot.”

Hajibekyan said the pickups used to be twice weekly before the new and improved program. Now they are made once in a while at more than twice the cost. And he’s heard every excuse from the haulers, including the standard line about how they’re adjusting during this transitional phase.

Condo owners are too. They’ve been storing recyclables in their homes or in the halls of the building, Hajibekyan said, and some have even tossed them in with the trash, which defeats the whole purpose.

This is not an isolated story, as you probably know. RecycLA, which serves businesses and apartment and condo complexes, was in the planning stages for years but has had what a kind person might call a bumpy rollout.

Others have called it a disaster, a ripoff and a mess. One property manager I spoke to Tuesday had a thought as to who might be in charge.

“This is just literally like the Three Stooges,” said Robert Kilian, who works for Cardinal Management Group and handles the business affairs of 22 homeowner associations in Los Angeles — most of which have had problems with late pickups or price hikes.

Kilian said the 12 homeowners in Hajibekyan’s building had been paying $389 a month for hauling, but that the new bill is more than double that — $825.

There have been reports of costs tripling and even quadrupling for other customers, due in part to added fees tacked on.

For what, you ask?

For times when haulers have to use a remote control to unlock gates, for instance. Surely you can imagine the hardship.

And for times when haulers have to roll bins more than 100 feet.

My colleague David Zahniser reported last week that the city’s Bureau of Sanitation has been quarreling with the hauling companies over those fees. The city has claimed so far that 300 customers were overcharged, but you can expect the number of disputes to rise significantly in the very near future.

So how did this get so screwed up?

Well, the objectives were noble, and state-mandated in part. The city wanted to reduce landfill waste by encouraging more recycling, it wanted to instill a measure of uniformity in what had been a largely unregulated private industry, it wanted haulers to get rid of exhaust-spewing wrecks and invest in green trucks, and it wanted employees to be paid at least the city’s living wage of $12.73 an hour.

No problems so far.

But city officials had two models to choose from. They could maintain a level of competition among haulers, or they could award exclusive contracts to haulers for designated sectors of the city. In a 2012 report, then-city administrative officer Miguel Santana recommended the former.

“A non-exclusive franchise preserves an open, competitive marketplace which is the most significant factor in maintaining price controls,” Santana wrote.

But forces in the labor and environmentalist communities, including the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, pushed the exclusive franchise model. And they prevailed. Greg Good, who worked for the alliance at the time, by the way, was later hired by Mayor Eric Garcetti to help implement RecycLA.

“This is anticipated disappointment, from my perspective, and that’s why I voted against it,” said Councilman Mitch Englander, who told me he thought all the stated goals of RecycLA could have been achieved without sacrificing competition among haulers.

City Hall watchdog Jack Humphreville said that with the new monopolies in place and price gouging rampant, customers will end up paying tens of millions of dollars more than they had been. And he wondered if the $35 million in franchise fees, paid by the haulers to the city, would be used in part to cover budget deficits Humphreville attributes to weak leadership.

In early December, council members Mike Bonin and Mitch O’Farrell introduced legislation calling for the sanitation department to produce a report on possible improvements to RecycLA, including reducing the added costs being charged by the haulers.

But these contracts are in place for 10 years, and if city officials had done a better job of negotiating them, customers wouldn’t be getting gouged for ridiculous things like triggering a remote to open a gate. In the feud that’s broken out between city officials and six of the seven private hauling companies, the haulers are standing their ground, warning the city to “cease and desist.”

Elena Sterna, a RecycLA spokesperson, tried to put the best spin on things, saying that despite the snags, improvements are being made and some customers have had nothing but praise for the program.

Tony Donato is not a member of that group.

When I met him Tuesday at his 50-unit condo building in Tarzana, the homeowner association president told me that Waste Management repeatedly has missed recycling pickups at his place, once going roughly a month without a visit. Waste Management, by the way, told Zahniser the city had underestimated the number of customers it would have to serve, and the company is adjusting “as quickly as possible.”

“I call Waste Management directly, but I get nobody to respond,” said Donato. “So I call the health department, and they tell me to call environment, and they tell me to call health. Everybody passes the buck.”

Donato said his condo group used to pay $695 a month, but that went up to $1,011, and then when RecycLA began, the fee jumped to $1,700.

“We had competition before, and we would play one company against the other. Now with no competition, we’ve got no recourse,” said Donato.

His wife, Sharon, had one thing to add.

“And the trash is everywhere.”

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