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End of era nears for Annapolis trash department

A three-man team of trash men worked Tyler Avenue in Annapolis as if elegantly choreographed.

The truck rolled ever forward as two men tumbled the ripe contents of can after can into the compactor, darting across the street, then stepping effortlessly onto the back of the truck for yet another block of smelly, sweaty work.

"Don't let no one tell you it's not hard work," sanitation employee Joe Wallace said recently, resting his hands on his knees and swallowing gulps of hot summer air. "We're just trying to get done so we can get home."

Their days of slinging refuse are winding down as the city plans to ditch its in-house trash service for a contractor in September. The move — coupled with cutting pickup days from two to one — is expected to save $1 million a year and reduce annual bills by about $48 per household.

The city has launched one of its most extensive marketing campaigns to alert residents to the change, putting up posters in grocery stores, mailing home two sets of postcards, arranging for notices — in English and Spanish — to be put in some school materials and even deploying robocalls.

But with a private company set to take over trash collection for the first time in Annapolis' more-than-300-year history, longtime trash workers saddened about an end of an era are concerned residents won't get the same level of customer service.

"I think we care more about the city and keeping the city beautiful than someone who comes in from somewhere else to try do the job," said Howard Johnson Jr., a seven-year trash veteran. Johnson said many trash men live in the city, care about keeping its streets clean and have learned Annapolis' rhythms in ways you can only know by doing a city's trash — when spring break starts or who's at the front of crab season, for example.

"I just don't think it's going to work with them coming in from the outside," Johnson said. "It remains to be seen, but the ends aren't going to justify the means."

Even city leaders who helped craft the plan to transfer trash operations to the contracting company, which currently picks up recycling, felt a sense of nostalgia about the end of the city's trash program. The city's trash trucks will be sold off and the 22 positions in the trash division eliminated.

"These folks have been doing it quite a long time, and they do a really nice job," City Manager Michael Mallinoff said. "That's going to be tough to replace."

Mallinoff said the decision to switch to a contractor comes with trade-offs. While the frequency of service declines, statistics show people tend to recycle more when they have less frequent trash pickup.

Mallinoff said having a city employee oversee contractors should help ensure customer service stays high. And while city employees had 11 paid holidays — and residents therefore didn't get trash picked up — the contractor has only six, Mallinoff said.

Though many trash workers are transferring to other departments to drive trucks or hand out parking tickets, every employee was offered a position with the contractor.

"I don't think anyone took them up on it," said Phil Scrivener, who will transition from overseeing the city's trash workers to supervising the contractors. "The benefits aren't comparable, and the salaries are a little less."

A trio of vultures roosted on a defunct chimney behind the city's public works complex on Spa Road as Scrivener talked about the sets of fathers and sons who made careers as city trash men.

"A lot of people came into this job thinking this would be their whole careers," he said. "I'm getting emotional about it, I don't know why."

As the trash division draws to a close, Scrivener tried to help reconstruct some of the history of the department, hoping to find pictures of the city's very first trash teams.

"This government's been in effect since the 1700s," he said. "I'm sure they had people with horses and wagons hauling trash."

Historian Jean Russo said she thinks that didn't happen until around the Civil War.

"Initially, everyone just threw their trash into the street and into the water," Russo said. "You just waited for the rain to wash it into the harbor."

Russo tracked the city's first trash ordinance to 1848, when residents were fined 50 cents for leaving trash out other than on the first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each month.

"For people who are complaining about once a week [pickup], three times a month is much worse," Russo said.

Alan Kushner was mowing his lawn in the Kingsport neighborhood last week as the trash trucks rolled by him. Now that his three sons aren't at home, he doesn't mind putting out his trash only once a week. But he finds it objectionable that employees might lose jobs with benefits to contractors.

"I like the idea that people doing an essential job get paid a good salary," Kushner said. "I just think that's the right way to do things."

Clifton Gough fought through the cloying smell of baking trash, hoisting broken toys and a pile of a half-dozen swollen bags left haphazardly on a sidewalk, reciting his countdown every few blocks.

"Twenty-one more days!" Gough said. He never wanted to work in refuse, but he still dislikes the plan to cut back on trash service.

"Now this is two-day-a-week trash," Gough said, gesturing to the pile of bags. "Look at this. They're going to go to once a week? Can you imagine?"

A little boy in camouflaged shorts jogged out of a town house to hand him one last bag of trash.

"This is what they're going to miss," Gough said. "Customer service."

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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