Sunday, April 26, 2015

Garbage Options

Garbage pick-up, or as it's identified on your water bill, sanitation services, is probably one of the more crucial services that the city provides - right up there with providing clean water and safe streets.  If you've ever been in a city during a garbage strike, you'll remember how quickly the effects are felt.  Andrea was in Toronto a few years ago during their last garbage strike, and she still remembers how public garbage cans were taped up, full of garbage, to try to prevent more garbage from being added, and how piles of garbage in public parks made things most unpleasant.

While we haven't had to suffer through anything like that, it doesn't mean that we should be complacent about our garbage system, or not try to make improvements.  This is the first year in some time that we've actually reviewed the sanitation budget, and it's something that we should be doing annually, rather than just assuming that the status quo is good enough.

For starters, there are inequities in the system.  Most residents have roll-out bins, with separate bins for garbage and recyclables.  However, some older neighbourhoods (including mine), which still have back alleys, have large communal bins, two or three garbage bins for every recycle bin.  One of the reasons that we kept with the communal bins several years ago was that some residents, particularly seniors, were concerned about their ability to manage rolling out a bin.  However, their are a couple of major downsides to communal bins.  One is that some people seem to think that they should be able to use these bins even if they don't live in the houses that they serve - more than once I've seen pick-up trucks dumping large amounts of garbage into my bin, and when it was full, move on to the next one down the alley.  The other is that people seem to think that they can just leave garbage there, in or out of the bin, including broken furniture, bicycles, and boxes of clothing.  These are not picked up during the regular runs of the garbage truck, so can hang about for weeks until finally getting removed.

We don't treat apartment buildings equally.  Some are required to have commercial pick up, which they pay for themselves.  Others, including the three buildings in the block behind my house, are allowed to use the communal bins.  However, the cost per unit is much less than for the houses on the other side of the alley, even though the volume of garbage produced by the multiple units in each building is much greater than that produced by my house and my next door neighbour.  And often, at moving time, anything left behind by the departing resident is just dumped into the communal bin by the landlord, at no extra charge.  I think that we should move all multiple unit buildings to the same standard, rather than giving some breaks, which end up costing the city money, and requiring neighbours to have to do extra clean-up.

For me, the final straw was walking down the alley one afternoon, and finding a pile of hundreds of needles by a communal bin.  It appeared as though drug users had been taking shelter between the bin and the fence of the home behind to shoot up, then just tossing the needles.  That opportunity wouldn't be there if each residence had its own, roll-out bin.

I called city administration, but after waiting for two weeks for someone to call me back, I just went straight to council, asking to have individual roll-out bins for my block.  Although I didn't get unanimous support, because apparently a couple of my colleagues don't agree that all residents should have access to the same services, it did pass, and my neighbours and I will be getting roll-out bins by the middle of May.  The owners of the three apartment buildings will have to make their own arrangements.  I'm looking forward to having room in my own garbage and recycling bins.

Recycling is another area where we could improve.  I've mentioned before the problems with garbage being placed in recycling bins, both private and communal, which results in the entire recycling load having to go to the landfill.  As well, we have the additional pick-up of clear bags containing leaves and other yard waste, which requires an additional truck with three staff.  I think that we should do as Saskatoon has started doing - have a subscription service for recycling, with an additional bin, so that those who require the service then have three bins - black, blue and green.  I think that it would also be quite reasonable to penalize those who, for whatever reason, don't understand how not to put garbage into a recycling bin.  If garbage is found in your recycling bin, you should lose the opportunity, and have a surcharge on your sanitation fee, since the whole point of recycling is to reduce the demand on the landfill.  And while we're at it, we could have different rates for different sizes of garbage bins, to encourage people to recycle as much as possible, and further minimize what ends up at the landfill.

I would be greatly encouraged if administration could investigate some of these options, so that next year when we look at the sanitation budget, it's more than just the same old thing.  Garbage is not something that's going away, but there's always opportunity for improvement.

"Human society sustains itself by transforming nature into garbage." - Mason Cooley

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Customer Service - What a Concept

A comment often made, by both residents and members of council, is that the city should be run like a business.  I think that when people say that, whether they're part of council or not, they mean that we need to be conscious of spending money wisely, investing in the long-term, and looking for the most efficient way of operating, whether it's running facilities or maintaining infrastructure.

What isn't usually discussed is one of the basic tenets of running a business - providing good customer service.  I had an experience last week that illustrated to me how many of our city employees don't realize that one of their responsibilities is providing good customer service, as they are usually the front line in dealing with the tax payer, who is the customer for the many services that the city provides.

I got a notice from the city over an assessment issue, with a phone number to contact if I wanted more information.  Since I wanted more information, I dialed the number.  The following conversation went like this.

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "Who am I speaking to?"

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "I know that.  Who am I speaking to?"

City Employee (rather rudely): "Who's this."

Me: "Councillor Lee Atkinson, and I'd like to speak to XXX (the individual who had signed the letter)."

City Employee (slightly more pleasant tone): "He's in Regina." At this point, I would have expected an offer to take a message, an inquiry as to what I was calling about, in case someone else could help me, or at least some information as to when the individual who had signed the letter would be back, or possibly all three.  I got nothing.

Me:  "Okay, I'd like to speak to Joe Day (the director of Financial Services)."

City Employee:  "He's in a meeting."  Again, no interest in why I was calling, or any interest in helping me with whatever my problem is.

Me:  "Never mind, I'll call the City Manager."

I hung up, angry because I had followed the directions in the letter for further information, and was not helped one bit by whoever answered the phone.  This is a good illustration of what I'm often told by frustrated residents who have contacted City Hall with a question or concern - not much help, and a reluctance to identify oneself, so that a person may be told one thing one day, and a different thing the next, but can't tell who the individual was who provided information that may have been faulty.

When I shared this with Andrea, a long-time government employee, she was amazed.  The standard in her workplace is that you always identify yourself when you answer the phone, and if you can't help the person on the other end, you find someone who can.  Their guideline for response to phone inquiries is within 24 hours.  Since I never received a response from the Sanitation Department to an inquiry I made about roll-out garbage bins more than two weeks ago (I finally just went directly to Council with my request), I'm pretty sure that no such standard has been set for city employees.

I suppose that some employees might think that providing good customer service doesn't matter, because it's not like we have any competition in our business.  That being said, it is more efficient to deal with a customer's question the first time it's asked, rather than making them keep trying - you're saving not just their time, but also the time of other city employees who might answer the phone next time, or the time of people up the line who may eventually have to step in to deal with an increasingly annoyed customer.

It's also just plain good manners.  We have signs posted at our cashier stations, warning people who are there to pay water bills or parking tickets that they need to be respectful.  That's more likely to happen if the respect also happens the other way.

Some of my council colleagues have raised suggestions that the city needs to develop a slogan or a brand to help sell ourselves.  I would suggest that if we start with the people who are the first line of customer response, ensuring that they are polite, helpful, and don't think that their job is done until the customer is satisfied, that would be a much less costly way of building our city's reputation, with the people who really count, the people who live here.

Me?  I'm still waiting for an answer to my question.

"You can get through life with bad manners, but it's easier with good manners."  Lillian Gish

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Couple of Things I Didn't Know About the Needle Exchange Program

Friday morning as Andrea and I were headed out to get groceries, we had an unpleasant surprise.  Dumped on the boulevard by our house was what appeared to be a pile of garbage.  When I took a closer look, it turned out to be a large pile of drug paraphernalia - needles, both used and unused, alcohol swabs, cotton balls, spoons, elastics, a variety of capsules (blue, pink, green and yellow), bloody paper towels and tissues, zip-lock bags.  And when I say large, I mean large - more than sixty needles.

How and why this pile of garbage got there I don't know - I know that it wasn't there the afternoon before.  While I'm sort of accustomed to seeing needles in the gutters as we walk downtown everyday, and on a recent walk down our back alley I found a horrendous pile of needles between a dumpster and a neighbour's fence, it was more than a little upsetting to see this, on a boulevard where children walk to school every day, and people walk their dogs.

So I called the Harm Reduction Program, and two people came to pick this stuff up.  Since I had them handy, I asked a couple of questions, and the answers surprised me, and might surprise you.  Since there were so many needles, I asked how many needles they hand out to any individual at any one time.  The answer was, to my mind, unbelievable and indefensible.


What possible reason can there be to hand out twenty needles at one time?  I suppose that an argument could be made that it saves the user repeated trips to the Harm Reduction Office.  But I'm not sure what part of harm reduction is delivered by making it easier for the user to take drugs - I would have thought that reduction meant encouraging less use, not more.  And of course, more needles makes it easier to share, and increase the number of drug users, not decrease.

The other piece of rather surprising information is that it's not really a needle exchange program, despite the name.  To get those twenty needles, the user does not have to turn in twenty needles.  Nope.  Not even one.  The rather impressive figures handed out to illustrate the success of the program count every needle turned in as a return.  But that includes the needles that are placed in drop boxes, the needles picked up by the Fire Department, and the needles picked up by the Harm Reduction Program, including the sixty-odd that they picked up on Friday from the boulevard outside my home.  That's how they get a shortfall of only 81,196 needles from the 2012-13 year, when they handed out 1,278,150 needles and got back 1,196,854.

 I think that using the phrase needle exchange is being somewhat misleading - no exchange takes place.  Needles go out, needles come back, but needles are not exchanged.  I also think that handing needles out in such large numbers in a single transaction is only making the problem worse, and I really don't see how the city can support such a program.

I understand that providing needles helps to prevent other complications.  But I resent the program being presented as something other than what it is, and numbers being used to present as rosy a picture as possible.  Develop a program with some realistic controls, be honest about how it's working, and maybe we can work together to reduce the number of needles that keep showing up on our streets.

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." - Buddha