There’s a new firm collecting the garbage, cleaning the streets and emptying the public trash cans in the French Quarter and Central Business District, the first time an entirely new vendor has had the contract since just after Hurricane Katrina.
The $3.9 million annual contract with Empire Janitorial Sales and Services, based in Metairie, includes additional services for the downtown area at a greatly reduced price, city officials said. “We feel like this is a very positive experience,” said Sanitation Department Director Cynthia Sylvain-Lear. “It should be a win-win for everyone.”
The contract, which covers sanitation services in the French Quarter and the Downtown Development District — from Iberville Street to the Pontchartrain Expressway and from the river to Claiborne Avenue — requires specific services of the winner and was awarded based solely on price. The bid process wrapped up in December, and Empire took over the job on Jan. 1.
In recent years, sanitation services in the French Quarter and CBD were handled first by SDT, the trash company run by the flashy Sidney Torres IV, and then by Progressive Waste Solutions, which purchased Torres’ company in 2011.
The contract has been a major focus of city officials in the past, in part because of Torres’ high profile but also because of the perceived importance of a clean Quarter and CBD for bringing in tourists and because of occasional budget fights that have focused on the deal.
Empire’s contract is worth about $475,000 a year less than the city was paying for sanitation services under its previous agreement with Progressive and is $305,000 less than the bid put in by Metro Service Group, the next lowest bidder.
Under the deal, Empire is required to use smaller trucks running on alternative fuels, points of importance to preservationists worried about the effects of vibrations from large garbage trucks in the Quarter, Sylvain-Lear said.
Empire also has taken over some services the city had been providing, including cleaning up after the mule-drawn carriages in the Quarter, flushing and sweeping the streets and emptying trash bins in the Downtown Development District.
Under the terms of the bid, the city also can begin glass recycling in the French Quarter, something that could start as soon as this spring, Sylvain-Lear said.
Essentially all of the savings in the contract come from Empire’s nearly nominal fee to empty the public trash cans throughout the Quarter and DDD. The other companies that put in bids wanted to charge about $30 to $60 per month to empty each of 772 cans, while Empire offered to do the job for $1.50 per month for each bin.
City officials said that discrepancy is not a problem; companies are allowed to structure their bids as they see fit even if they’re taking a loss in some areas and making it up in others. As long as the company meets the terms of the contract and only bills the amount it quoted for that service, that arrangement is fine, the city said.
Sylvain-Lear said the Sanitation Department has received largely positive feedback about the new contractor so far, though there were issues early on with curbside recycling pickups. To have their recycling bins emptied, customers must have them out on the street by 4 a.m., something not all residents had been doing. When those issues arose, Empire sent trucks to do extra collections so as to avoid problems, she said.
But a contractor who was involved in the French Quarter contract for years said she had doubts Empire can deliver on its services for the price it quoted.
Earline Torres is the mother of Sidney Torres IV. Her company served as a subcontractor for SDT, her son’s company, on the French Quarter contract and later continued with Progressive after that firm purchased SDT from him.
Earline Torres would have continued to work on the contract under two of the losing bidders, Progressive and Richard’s Disposal.
For the price it’s charging, she said, Empire will have to cut corners on the work and won’t be able to meet all the requirements of the contract. She also raised questions about whether Empire is using the proper tools for the job and said she has seen collections done with makeshift equipment.
“I want it to be right, and I wish them success in it,” Torres said. “I know I could never have done it the way the contract was written for that price. They’re doing it for a lot, lot less, but I guess if I could use a landscape trailer and not do it the way the contract says, I could do it for a lot better price myself.”
Officials with Empire did not respond to requests for comment.
There are checks in place to ensure that companies awarded city contracts are using the proper equipment and abiding by the terms of their deal, Sylvain-Lear said.
With Mardi Gras fast approaching, Torres said she doubts that Empire has the experience to get the Quarter cleaned after the last Fat Tuesday revelers leave and before residents are out and about on Ash Wednesday.
“That’s going to be the challenge,” she said. “More power to them if they can do it, and I hope they can, but I don’t see how they’re going to be able to do it with the equipment they have.”
Sylvain-Lear said the department has confidence that Empire will be able to handle the post-Mardi Gras cleanup.
“This company has resources. It’s a very large company, and it has subs as well who also have resources,” Sylvain-Lear said. “We feel very confident they will be able to handle it. They are very much aware of Mardi Gras and their responsibilities.”
Late Sunday night, Sidney Torres said he began producing a series of ads critical of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s record on fighting crime in Quarter before the Empire contract was awarded. Those ads ran briefly this month, though after meeting with the mayor Torres said he would pull them off the air.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 26, 2015, to clarify the timing of the production and airing of ads funded by Sidney Torres that are critical of Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.