Responding to the Baltimore Department of Public Works’ decision to suspend recycling pickup for city residents until Nov. 1, City Council President and Democratic mayoral nominee Brandon Scott wrote a letter to the acting head of the agency on Monday urging him to “do more” to ensure continuity of “our basic duties as a government.”
The letter, addressed to acting director, Matthew W. Garbark, calls on the department to prioritize 311 calls for missed trash pickup; increase the number of recycling drop-off locations in each district; extend the hours of the city’s three citizen drop-off centers; and communicate better with residents.
Garbark announced at a news conference Thursday that an ongoing employee shortage exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic forced the agency to forego recycling to focus on trash routes.
Though the department has set up 14 total recycling drop-off locations, one in each of the city’s districts, Scott said many Baltimore residents still lack access to a service they help fund with their tax dollars.
“While COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for our city, it is unacceptable for us to be at this point and more must be done to ensure seniors, people with disabilities, and people without personal vehicles can access basic city services,” Scott said in the letter. “I am frustrated that Baltimore continues to struggle with regular trash pickup, a problem that predates this pandemic.”
A Baltimore Sun analysis conducted in December found that 311 service completion hinges largely on where callers live, with Southeastern Baltimore residents regularly getting their requests fulfilled on time in contrast with most of the city.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young campaigned on a promise of cleaning up Baltimore’s streets and ending the service backlog, but Scott defeated him in the Democratic mayoral primary in June.
Since then, a COVID-19 outbreak at the at one facility disrupted recycling for three weeks starting in June. Many department employees subsequently refused to show up for shifts that month, leading to delays in trash pickup services.
City data shows the completion rate for 311 service calls dipped this year relative to last, dropping to a four-year low of about 68% in June. In June 2019, the department completed nearly 78% percent of its service calls on time. In July 2020, the completion rate increased to 74%, down just three percentage points from the same month a year earlier.
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Meanwhile, calls to the Department of Public Works peaked in July — a record high of 96,700 calls — and was preceded by 96,100 calls in June, the second-highest volume ever logged, according to the data. This time last year, the department fielded 66,000 calls in June and 76,000 in July.
Representatives from the Department of Public Works did not respond Monday to a request for comment about Scott’s letter.
The City Council president, the likely next mayor given the city’s strong Democratic base, said the agency should communicate how it arrived to the decision to suspend recycling pickup, verify that workers have enough personal protective gear to do their jobs, and detail the impact of the coronavirus on city services to date.
“The hard-working women and men of DPW ... have contended with coronavirus outbreaks, extreme heat, and an increased load,” Scott said in the letter. “We must do everything we can to support our frontline workers and keep them safe.”
Pastor Shannon Wright, running as the Republican nominee in Baltimore’s mayoral race, said in a statement Monday that Scott should take responsibility for the city’s previous trash and recycling backlog.
“As a legislator, it was on his watch that Baltimore residents have suffered a trash problem that has put their health in further jeopardy,” Wright said in the statement, adding that she has “engaged” the private sector to clean up neighborhoods herself. “Given the stench coming both from City Hall, and the streets of Baltimore ... his weak statements are laughable.”
Scott said he and his office would “be there to help alongside” solid waste workers, but did not provide specifics about plans to fulfill that commitment.