Jennifer Millman

I-Team: Trash Complaints Rise Despite Sanitation Spending Spree

What to Know

  • The Department of Sanitation payroll has gone up 13 percent under de Blasio, but NYers' complaints to 311 have also increased in that time
  • Officials say part of the increase in trash complaints is related to a new organics collection program that requires dual-bin trucks
  • The department has also hired 532 new employees

The city's Department of Sanitation has seen a 13 percent payroll increase under Mayor de Blasio, but New Yorkers have lodged 24 percent more 311 complaints about missed trash collection in that time, leading some residents to wonder if taxpayer money is being put to good use. 

According to data from the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan government watchdog, payroll expenditures for DSNY employs were about $611 million when de Blasio took office in 2014. Three years later, DSNY payroll ballooned to $692 million.

Part of the payroll increase stemmed from the mayor’s labor agreement guaranteeing retro-active pay increases for current and retired employees. Part of the increase was due to the hiring of 532 new employees. 

“They shouldn’t be having more complaints if they’re having more personnel,” said Fernando Melendez, a Queens building porter who says he has seen more bulk trash piling up on his sidewalk in the last year. 

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia suggested part of the reason trash complaints are going up during the payroll expansion is related to something positive –- a new service DSNY is offering customers. 

Under de Blasio, DSNY has launched a new organics collection program in 35 neighborhoods. But the collection of organics requires a different configuration of garbage trucks 

"We've been using trucks that have two sides to them. They're called dual-bins. Dual-bin refuse side can't really fit a couch or a mattress, for example," Garcia said. 

According to Garcia, the use of dual-bin trucks can sometimes push the collection of bulk trash -- like discarded furniture -- to later in the day or week. That may lead to more 311 complaints about missed collections, even though the bulk trash is ultimately picked up and New Yorkers are getting the additional service of environmentally friendly organic waste disposal. 

Maria Doulis, vice president of the nonpartisan government watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, said the sanitation payroll increase happens in the context of a broad-based payroll expansion in nearly all city agencies. She questioned whether the increased payroll is leading to better service. 

“Where we do have some of the unit cost indicators that let us know what the cost of services are, those indicators by and large show that it is just more expensive to run government,” Doulis said. 

A year ago, Councilman Garodnick (D-Upper East Side) drafted a letter signed by 25 City Council members urging de Blasio to find savings of 5 percent in every administrative agency. The letter warned of a projected $1.05 billion budget gap in Fiscal Year 2017. 

"The problem is that we have grown too much, too fast in a way that is something that is dangerous for the long-term strength of the city's budget," Garodnick said. 

The mayor’s office says the city’s reserve funds are at record levels with $1 billion in the General Reserve and $4 billion socked away to pay for health benefits of retired city workers. Although the mayor has not pledged to find 5 percent savings in each agency, as Garodnick has requested, he has pledged to look for fat to cut. 

“[T]he mayor promised to find areas of savings and we are making good on that promise. We found savings during every step of the budget process and there will be even more savings in our upcoming November Plan,” Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the I-Team. 

Still, the most recent projections show city tax revenue in 2017 will be lower than in 2016, and Doulis wonders how much of the new hiring supports clear policy goals. 

"In the Department of Sanitation, for example you see a very large increase of hundreds of positions on the civilian side of the department, which is a little bit curious,” Doulis said. 

Many of the new sanitation hires are administrative or supervisory in nature. 

For example, since de Blasio took office there are 15 new DSNY general superintendents and 165 new supervisors. 

“We actually felt we did not have proper supervision over our front-line forces and we felt it would be much more efficient to have more supervisors,” Garcia said. 

The commissioner had a more difficult time justifying another payroll peculiarity. In Fiscal Year 2016, the DSNY payroll included 18 stock worker supervisors who oversee just eight stock workers. 

Garcia said a labor lawsuit against DSNY forced the agency to keep more stock room supervisors on staff than there are stock workers to supervise. 

“I think there are sometimes real challenges with the way the civil service system works," Garcia said.

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