Public housing residents in Mount Airy are protesting an upcoming change in garbage-collection procedures they say could force them to pay for a service now provided free, as well as compromise their personal information.
“This is a low-income area,” said Michelle Whitlock, a Jeffries Street resident who was circulating a petition Thursday regarding the change. It coincides with plans for a Virginia-based company to take over garbage collection in Mount Airy’s public housing neighborhoods next month from a local business now supplying that service.
Unlike the present provider, Mount Pilot Garbage Service in Pilot Mountain, Waste Industries of Wytheville, Va., will not move trash receptacles from the rear of residents’ homes to the street for emptying into a truck. And when it begins collections in October, they face a new charge of $10 each time the carts aren’t moved from the street after the once-a-week collections on Fridays.
“A lot of us are elderly and disabled,” Whitlock said of the hardship posed to residents in having to roll the sometimes-heavy receptacles to the street — especially during bad weather. Whitlock, a public housing resident of about six years, has disabilities including bone disease in her right arm.
“It’s not that we are lazy — we cannot do what our bodies won’t let us do,” she said.
And while those who are disabled can be exempted from that requirement and the accompanying $10 charge, by submitting a medical waiver containing certain information, even that is viewed as problematic. Some object to providing such personal data to a sanitation company.
“That’s not the garbage service’s business,” Whitlock said of affected residents being required to list such details.
“How do we know what they’re going to do with the list afterwards?” she added, citing the possibility of it winding up in the wrong hands and leading to scams.
The petition being circulated already contained nearly 40 signatures as of Thursday morning.
More than 600 people are estimated to live in the 300 apartment units managed by the Housing Authority of Mount Airy, which are located in four neighborhoods spread over the city. The units are subsidized, meaning the residents pay rent according to their income.
They were notified of the upcoming switch in garbage-collection companies through a monthly newsletter.
While the public might be of the assumption that the trash service is provided by municipal garbage crews since the housing units in question are in the city limits, that’s not the case.
Under city policy, a large apartment complex or entity such as the housing authority must arrange for its own pickups, according to Gray Parker, assistant director of the authority. In existence since 1961, it operates as a private, federally funded corporation that is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Residents say they have been pleased by the job performed by Mount Pilot Garbage Service.
“We’ve been doing it, I guess, about seven years,” said Tim Sechrist, the owner of the business that serves areas all over Surry County and employs two people full-time.
Parker said the switch to the new company was part of an annual process by the local housing agency.
“We contract our garbage service out each year, and another one got it this time,” he said of Waste Industries. Though based in Wytheville, its reach stretches into southern Carroll County. “And the trucks are around Mount Airy — you see them all the time,” Parker said.
He explained that the $10 charge stems from the extra work that might result from the new provider not moving carts from the rear of homes and moving them back when emptied. Should residents fail to do this, it will require the housing authority to send a member of its maintenance staff to handle that task, Parker said.
Bid Process Questioned
Along with the residents’ concerns, the owner of Mount Pilot Garbage Service wonders why it no longer will have the collection contract come October.
Sechrist said Thursday that he does not believe the bidding process was handled openly and fairly by Kay Morgan, director of the Housing Authority of Mount Airy, including Mount Pilot being properly notified it was under way. The business owner said he only learned of this in a roundabout way.
“I had got wind they had bids a-going, and they hadn’t sent me anything out,” Sechrist said. He later submitted a proposal, but wonders whether it was even considered for the job that has brought in $2,825 to his company each month — “a good hunk” of its business, the owner added.
“They said they only got one bid, from Waste Industries,” Sechrist said he was told. He later received a letter from the housing authority informing him that Mount Pilot Garbage Service no longer would handle the trash pickups, but stating no reason.
Sechrist thought that was odd, since there had been no complaints voiced to him from housing authority officials about Mount Pilot’s performance, and he believes it can provide the service cheaper than Waste Industries.
“I think it was illegal the way she handled it,” Sechrist said of Morgan.
When advised of Sechrist’s allegations Thursday afternoon, the housing authority director responded, “I have no comment on that.”
In explaining the bid-solicitation procedure, Morgan said three letters were sent to prospective vendors, but she had no response when asked if Mount Pilot Garbage Service was one of them. She did confirm that only one bid was received.
Asked if there any problems with the service provided by Sechrist’s company, Morgan replied, “I have no comment on that, sir!”
Earlier in the day, both Morgan and Parker had addressed issues raised by disabled residents regarding the privacy of their medical information provided on the waiver, especially Whitlock’s concern that it could be compromised.
“I don’t know about that,” Parker said. “We do not give out that information on a person — they send it in and it goes directly to the garbage service.”
Morgan, meanwhile, said only basic details are included — “their name, address and that they are not able to get it (the cart) to the curb.”
Yet, Whitlock fears even bits of information, such as a person’s name and addresses — which she said is “nobody’s business” — could be a springboard for piecing together other data on someone’s identity and lead to a crime. “How do we know the disabled people aren’t going to be scammed?”
She also is concerned that if nothing else, giving out such details might result in unwanted sales or other solicitations.
“This is our concern: Why should our personal information go to this waste company?”
Whitlock believes the disability waiver shouldn’t be a requirement, because the local agency already has detailed records on each tenant. “So the housing authority already knows who’s disabled,” she added.
While standing in her yard Thursday and looking around the neighborhood, Whitlock said the garbage situation makes her wonder if the authority has lost track of its mission to provide decent, affordable housing to people in need.
“This is supposed to be for us, the residents.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.