- The contractual relationship between Republic Services and Polk County, FL may have ended this past weekend, but their dispute appears to be intensifying. On Sept. 27, the county attorney's office sent a letter claiming that Republic had defaulted on its contract due to missed and delayed collections starting on Sept. 8 before Hurricane Irma. An attorney representing Republic fired back on Sept. 29, accusing the county of "sanctimonious conduct" in an effort to distract from an estimated $1 million in unpaid bills.
- Republic maintains that its decision to invoke force majeure was allowed by the franchise agreement under a provision that grants time for the company to "reestablish regular routes...as soon after the natural disaster as possible." The company also disputes that a variance wasn't requested, saying that its proposal to temporarily suspend yard waste collection after the storm and bring in additional trucks was denied by county officials.
- Following up on a Sept. 8 promise to "pursue all remedies" to recoup damages, the county attorney's office is now reserving all rights to "deduct sums due and owing to the County as a consequence of such default from monthly payments due Republic...and the right to call upon the Performance Bond without prejudice to any right or remedy." The two parties are scheduled for mediation on Oct. 4.
Republic had serviced the estimated 140,000 households in unincorporated Polk County since 2005, but relations have been strained for years and at this point the end of their contract is seen as mutually desirable. As recently as this summer, the two parties had already entered mediation to resolve disputes over missed yard waste collection that Republic claims is based on false GPS data. The company says the county has used this as a pretense for not paying the estimated $1 million for collection service performed in December 2016 and January 2017. The arrival of Irma, and Republic's decision to stop collecting ahead of the storm, further exacerbated this situation.
As detailed in the Sept. 29 letter, collections were already one day off prior to the storm because of Labor Day schedule changes. On Sept. 9, a mandatory evacuation order was issued. Irma hit Florida that afternoon. Republic drivers continued to collect high priority commercial and institutional customers on a voluntary basis. Once the county reopened its landfill and residential collection resumed on Sept. 12, routes were being serviced slower than usual. Jones estimates that some drivers were pulling 30-40 tons per route, with an overall average of eight more tons than expected year-over-year. From the county's perspective, Republic wasn't collecting as fast or as thoroughly as desired.
“We had a deluge of customer complaints. Obviously, looking at GPS and other technology, the routes weren’t being completed," Polk County Manager Jim Freeman told Waste Dive.
Polk decided to bring in Advanced Disposal and FCC Environmental Services early since they were already scheduled to take over the contract in October. The two companies provided supplemental service on Republic's routes ahead of the storm and for roughly two of the three weeks since then. Republic views that as a violation of the exclusivity promised by the franchise contract. The company has questioned whether these trucks were collecting significant tonnage or were sent out as a "superficial publicity stunt."
"Most of that was posturing on the part of the county," Republic General Manager Chris Jones told Waste Dive. "In this case the level to which the county is trying to make Republic look bad is unprecedented."
According to Republic, residents were setting out more material because power outages had spoiled food. Storm debris that is technically covered under a separate contract was also being included. The county's refusal to allow temporary suspension of yard waste collection or the use of additional trucks without RFID and GPS technology have also been cited as delaying factors.
With the mediation pending, Freeman declined to get into further specifics about the amount of service provided by any of the three companies in the weeks since the storm or what the county would be asking for specifically. He was not available for comment after Waste Dive received the Sept. 29 letter written by Republic's attorney.
Based on the language in that letter — which called Polk County's conduct "unhelpful," "misleading," and "corrupt" — this week's mediation could be tense. As seen in other recent local government disputes, Republic has raised the possibility of a "lengthy and expensive lawsuit" if the issues can't otherwise be resolved. In the meantime, it will now be up to the two new companies to achieve the county's desired level of service for the next several years.