OIG report: DPW trash collection plagued by ‘financial waste and mismanagement’

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Photo via Baltimore DPW

As citizens ponders if Department of Public Works crews respond to 311 requests in an equitable way, the Office of the Inspector General today casts DPW’s Bureau of Solid Waste as an agency beset by “financial waste and mismanagement” that hinders workers in two waste yards from doing their jobs.

A July report by the investigative city agency found trash collectors would head home early or, in some cases, make overtime during regularly scheduled shifts. As part of a “task work system” adopted under a memorandum of understanding between the city and the municipal workers’ union, management assigns one trash route per day to a work crew. Adding a second is considered overtime, even if it falls within the normally scheduled 10-hour shift.

Today’s release details how staff shortages at the two yards responsible for curbside trash pick-up–Bowley’s Lane and Reedbird Avenue–led to city squandered funds, and offers new examples of overtime waste.

The head of the Bureau of Solid Waste, John Chalmers, who’s referred to throughout the report as “SW Bureau Head,” told investigators his department has 56 full-time vacancies. It’s especially hard to find workers with a commercial driver’s license, he said. Using municipal records, the OIG determined there are actually 57 vacancies, but only 16 involved trash collection, five of which need the commercial driver’s license.

As a result of the shortages, the Bureau of Solid Waste has to hire temporary workers and  “borrow” other DPW crew members to complete trash collection. Under a memorandum of understanding with the workers’ union, the “borrowed” employee is allowed to go home after a collection run is complete, a practice detailed in the OIG’s July report.

On several occasions, crews returned back to the solid waste yard when a “borrowed” employee’s shift ended before a route, and they had to wait for another worker join on and finish collecting trash.

According to the report, the bureau spent $11.3 million on staffing in fiscal year 2018, saving approximately $736,000 because a number of permanent positions remained unfilled. But the agency blew past its overtime budget by $1.1 million. In fiscal year 2019, the Bureau of Solid Waste budgeted $10.7 million for salaries and wages.

OIG’s investigation also turned up “questionable justifications for overtime, wasteful overtime practices and discrepancies in the actual overtime worked by an employee and the number of compensated hours.”

One policy called for superintendents, supervisors and the employee in charge of opening and closing the waste yard, known as a yardman, to stay on the clock until the last trash collection crew returned from its route.

This order “results in the unnecessary accrual of compensatory time in addition to overtime,” the report said.

Several workers disclosed that supervisors at the two yards would dangle overtime hours to get crews to go out and complete another trash route. The OIG found one occasion when a crew collected four hours of overtime for a 14-hour run, but GPS data from the trash truck showed the workers were out for less than 10 hours.

In all, 362 Bureau of Solid Waste workers collected overtime in fiscal year 2019, ranging from one worker who got a single hour to the top-earner, who received 1,214 hours. The three drivers who worked the most overtime hours were collectively paid more than $100,000 during that same period.

Today’s 29-page report also raises concerns about working conditions. Managers at the two yards told OIG investigators they suggested to upper-level management that the routes themselves are due for a fresh look, because they don’t reflect the evolution of various neighborhoods over the last decade.

“In some instances, entire blocks have been demolished, decreasing a crew’s route time, where in other instances new homes and developments have been built, increasing the route time,” the report said.

Those same managers said they believed they could adapt routes for day-to-day needs, but all permanent changes have to go through “SW Bureau Head.”

Employees also said they raised concerns about the conditions at the office building at the Bowley’s Lane yard, but their requests for maintenance were not answered. Chalmers denied knowing about the conditions of the building.

He also said he’s aware of the staff shortage and has requested additional funds to hire new employees. He said the surrounding counties offer more competitive salaries, making it harder to keep staff, and that a number of potential hires cannot pass pre-employment drug screenings.

In a response, DPW Deputy Director Matthew Garbank wrote a letter highlighting excerpts of the report, either pledging the agency would make fixes or contesting the way operations were characterized by investigators.

Garbank argued the agency needs more funding for renovations, technology to analyze routes and security upgrades.

“Solid Waste is under-budgeted to meet the needs of keeping the city clean and ensuring that staff are not overworked,” he wrote.

He also acknowledged the report “raises serious inquiries” and that DPW is forming an Office of Quality Assurance “to create a check-and-balance within the department.”

Brandon Weigel

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