The honeymoon could soon be over between Los Angeles and the trash companies picked to carry out the city's huge new recycling program.
Over the last three months, the city's Bureau of Sanitation and the refuse haulers have been at odds over the hefty new fees showing up on customers' bills — including one being charged when trash truck drivers use a remote control to open a gate.
The haulers have accused city officials of disregarding the terms of contracts approved more than a year ago for trash service. Sanitation officials, in turn, say they recently identified more than 300 bills with incorrect fees, roughly 1 out of every 5 surveyed.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said he is concerned about what he described as the "high error rate" in those bills. Letters have gone out to the haulers informing them that the bills need to be corrected, the first step toward reimbursing customers.
"This is an important way to lay down the law early on," said Garcetti, a champion of the recycling program, formally known as RecycLA.
The back-and-forth has played out as businesses, landlords and condominium owners continue to complain about the program, which was approved by the City Council and backed by Garcetti's appointees on the Board of Public Works. Since July, those customers have demanded action on missed trash collections and significantly higher bills.
Garcetti and some of the RecycLA trash contractors have downplayed the dispute over the program, which covers an estimated 70,000 customers. Still, an executive with the trash hauler Republic Services made it clear that his company and others are contesting several of the claims being made by sanitation officials.
"We are making every effort to work with city officials to resolve contractual disagreements … that we think distract from the core mission of the RecycLA program to reduce the volume of waste going to landfills," said Dave Hauser, Republic's market area vice president.
The dispute centers in large part on the extra fees being charged for key trash pickup services, such as opening locked gates and pulling bins a significant distance to the curb so they can be emptied.
Under RecycLA, trash companies can tack on an extra fee whenever a standard trash bin is pulled more than 100 feet. But in recent weeks, sanitation officials have concluded that more than 300 customers have been charged for that service even though their bins are a shorter distance away.
Hauser, the Republic executive, disagreed with the city's findings, saying sanitation officials have redefined the way in which the 100-foot distance is measured. Republic and other trash companies also disagree with the city's recent claim that those "distance fees" cannot be charged on recycling bins at multifamily residential buildings.
City leaders first put the trash haulers on notice on Oct. 3, sending them a list of fees deemed improper by the sanitation bureau. For example, they warned that charges should not be added in cases where a trash company simply uses a clicker, or remote control, to open a locked gate.
Several trash haulers responded by accusing the city of ignoring language in their contracts. Relations deteriorated further in the weeks that followed.
On Dec. 8, executives with six of the seven trash haulers called on the city to "formally retract in writing" its letters spelling out the types of fees that are prohibited. They said there is "no ambiguity" on the extra fees that are allowed under RecycLA.
"It is imperative that the city immediately cease and desist from any further publication of the attached letters," they wrote.
Garcetti, for his part, said he did not expect when pushing for RecycLA that companies would charge customers to use a remote control to open a gate or garage door. "Common sense could tell you that [using a remote control] doesn't seem to be something that costs you dozens of dollars more," he said.
Customers have been taking matters into their own hands, pursuing different strategies to avoid paying the city's extra fees. Some condo owners have pushed trash bins to the street on their own, while others have relocated the bins to ensure they are less than 100 feet from the curb.
In Hollywood, apartment building owner Dan Tenenbaum said extra fees are a big reason his monthly trash bill jumped from $261 to $1,886. Tenenbaum, founding principal of Pacific Crest Realty, said he managed to get the bill pared back to $587, in part by moving his trash bins to the front of the building so that no distance charges would be applied.
While the change is unsightly, it saved the company over $500 per month, Tenenbaum said.
"Our building is uglier because we've had to move the dumpsters to the front to avoid these extra charges," he said.
RecycLA has been applauded by environmental groups, nonprofit organizations and others, who say it will divert more trash from landfills, put cleaner-burning trash trucks on the street and create safer conditions for refuse workers. Still, some business owners say they are troubled that, months after it was launched, the program still has so many problems.
In Panorama City, property manager Avi Sinai said he has been dealing with missed pickups for months at the shopping center his family owns. Sinai has complained both to city officials and to Republic Services about smelly, overflowing trash bins.
Because the trash hasn't been consistently picked up, Republic has threatened to impose financial penalties for overflowing bins, Sinai said. "I've spent so much of my time dealing with this nonsense, and it's just gotten worse," he said.
Hauser, the executive with Republic, said he appreciates Sinai's "patience and understanding" as his company works through RecycLA's transition period. "We have had some missed collections during this transition, but we have adjusted our routes to ensure his location is serviced on his scheduled pick up dates," Hauser said in an email.
Waste Management, another trash hauler, attributed its "out-of-the-ordinary" service problems to the city underestimating the number of customers who would need service under RecycLA.
"To address this situation, we are adding the resources that we have learned are necessary as quickly as possible," said Doug Corcoran, director of Waste Management's public sector team in Southern California.