After a debut week of late trash pickups and angry homeowners, one of the mayor's top lieutenants is warning that the slow start by Toronto's new private collection company could jeopardize Rob Ford's push to outsource garbage across the city.
"If these are just simply growing pains and the contractor meets his performance standards, then this will be quickly forgotten," said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the mayor's point man on garbage. "If we can't get customer service standards up to where we'd like them to be, it's going to be more difficult to make the case for further privatization."
Contracting out garbage city-wide was a top campaign pledge for Mr. Ford, who persuaded council last year to outsource collection in the area between Yonge Street and the Humber River, saving $11-million annually.
With collection in Etobicoke already privatized, the western half of Toronto has now become a test case for Mr. Ford's promise that the private sector can beat the public sector on customer service and cost.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, 1,044 complaints about late or missed garbage pickups had rolled in to the city's 311 line since Green For Life Environmental Corp. began curbside collection for 165,000 homes on Tuesday.
Although the company added an extra 25 trucks to its fleet of 80 on Wednesday and an extra 15 on Thursday and Friday, GFL's vehicles continued to rumble through the streets after 9:30 p.m. every day, well past the 6 p.m. deadline in the contract.
That has prompted calls for the municipality to immediately punish the winner of the $186.4-million deal.
"The contract doesn't read: Always have everything picked up by [6 p.m.], except during the first few weeks," said Councillor Gord Perks, an opponent of privatization. "If they felt they needed a few weeks to get it right, they should have made that part of the bid."
Toronto's contract with GFL allows the city to charge $150 a day for every truck that misses the deadline, following a warning.
But warnings are issued at the discretion of solid waste boss Jim Harnum, who said Friday he's willing to give GFL as long as four weeks to bring its crews up to speed.
"My take on this is we wouldn't necessarily hire a new employee and start disciplining them if they couldn't operate the truck properly," he said.
The president and chief executive officer of GFL said Friday that he never asked for a grace period – he said he has simply pointed out that it usually takes a new contractor time to work out the kinks.
"It takes them four to six weeks to get as efficient as guys that have been doing it for 35 years," Patrick Dovigi said.
The same late pickups temporarily plagued GFL when it started collecting garbage and organics at 80,000 homes in Hamilton in 2006 and recycling at 160,000 homes in Hamilton in 2008, Mr. Dovigi said.
But Blair Smith, the manager of waste collections for Hamilton, called GFL's startup in that city "pretty much flawless."
"I do not know why [Mr. Dovigi] would say that. From our perspective, GFL, when they took on both contracts, did very well," Mr. Smith said.
Either way, Mr. Dovigi urged the media to cut his company some slack. "Divide 900 [311 calls] into 165,000 [homes] and tell me what percentage you get? It's a pretty small number."
Mr. Harnum said GFL had "shown some great improvements" in its first four days of operations, with 99.5-per-cent of residents seeing their trash removed by the end of the day Friday. The rest will be cleaned up Saturday. Mr. Harnum urged Torontonians to be patient.
That was difficult for some homeowners whose trash sat baking in the heat or soaking in the rain this week.
"We expect them to come when they say they're going to," said Dorothy Henry, who was outside removing her emptied green bin from the driveway Friday just after 11 a.m. – a full day after regularly scheduled pickup.
Her garbage, meanwhile, remained outside her Rushton Road home just south of St. Clair Avenue.
Sisters Heather and Mary MacDonald, landlords of a building on Humewood north of St. Clair, said they sympathized with GFL's collectors. They said collection in the area is so far behind that they saw a truck on their street late Thursday night.
"We told them, no one wants these trucks out at 11 p.m.," said Heather, who suggested the drivers get some rest and come back the next day instead.
"If you could just see that piteous sight of them asking, 'What are we going to do?'" Mary added. "The poor guys."