At an annual performance hearing Thursday before the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, Allied Waste publicly admitted to and apologized for its lousy customer service last year, and outlined efforts toward better days.
"We all would admit that performance for six to nine months of the year was very poor," said Evan Boyd, the general manager of collection operations for Allied Waste in San Mateo County. "The customer experience in dealing with Allied, on a level of 1 to 10, was very poor, and probably in the 1 to 2 range."
Boyd, who was brought on in November, admitted to an abundance of customer service complaints, excessive overtime, a weak customer service department, a lack of responsiveness by management, "abysmal" execution when pick-up days were changed in February 2006, and "major service issues on the street."
The waste management authority holds a contract with Allied through 2010 to provide trash and recycling pickup in 10 cities, unincorporated San Mateo County and the West Bay Sanitary District.
"There really has been a dark cloud that's been hanging over Allied Waste in terms of their performance over the past couple of years," said Kevin McCarthy, the authority's executive director.
McCarthy was also reserved in his praise of Allied's efforts to turn around.
"Clearly, Allied has a new management team in place, and they certainly have a new attitude to try to improve service on the street. I would characterize those results as being solid service delivery on the street, but certainly not superior service."
He said call-hold times have decreased significantly, but the experience that customers have while on the phone is far from ideal.
"What it comes down to is that we do expect more, our customers expect more," McCarthy said. "We have very high expectations for Allied's management team."
An authority report details its evaluation of Allied's performance, lambasting the trash hauler for failing to meet the goal for recycling volume among commercial customers for the fifth year in a row. In 2006, Allied recycled just 24 percent of commercial waste. Residential recycling has also remained below 50 percent.
Overall recycling tonnage decreased 12 percent between 2005 and 2006 from more than 31,000 tons to less than 28,000 tons a decline for the third straight year. Allied provides service to about 10,000 businesses and 93,000 residences in the county.
"I was just so discouraged to see that we're slipping in our recycling tonnages across the board," said Dianne
Dryer, Menlo Park's environmental coordinator and a member of the authority's board. "There's a lot of tonnage that is still being disposed, and we need to increase that percentage being diverted."
Allied has promised to hire six commercial recycling coordinators by May.
The report also expressed concern over Allied's meeting just two of eight performance standards, noting 398 incidents of missed pickups, 216 incidents of containers misplaced and 137 incidents of property damage.
Allied reported that it made several improvements in the latter half of 2006, such as replacing management staff, cutting overtime by 50 percent, driver training and paying out $135,000 in liquidated damages for service blunders to the member cities and jurisdictions.
Authority board members noted a marked decrease in 2007 of complaints about service from residents.
Since November, Interim Customer Service Manager Carrie Castro said she has established weekly customer service meetings, taught agents phone etiquette and adjusted work schedules to ensure phones are covered at all times.
"These are all areas that are pretty basic but weren't being done," Castro said.
Allied also was chided for failing to provide reports to the authority required by the contract. Some reports, such as how much yard waste Allied collects and whether it is properly turned into mulch, compost or biomass fuel, haven't been provided in years.
"The total potential fine amount for the cumulative non-reporting of plant materials is in the millions of dollars," the report states.
Allied outlined some lofty ambitions for 2007, including extensive tracking and reporting of performance, expanding San Carlos' battery and cell phone recycling pilot which collected 800 pounds in just one month to all customers, and overhauling its Web site for making complaints online.
Past performance hearings have been contentious; in a sign that changes may actually be afoot, the mood this year was cautiously collegial.
"We're trying to work together to try to put the problems behind us," McCarthy said. "We're happy with the improvements. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have reason to be optimistic."