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Litter complaints piling up

County officials say they hope more manpower - in the form of inmates - will help. But mainly, residents need to not throw trash, they say.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


INVERNESS -- It is difficult for officials to gauge whether roadside littering is on the rise, but complaints about it certainly are.

Just check the editorial pages of the newspapers, where numerous letters have called for increased roadside pickups.

Or ask County Commissioner Josh Wooten, who promised more litter pickups as a key plank in his campaign last year. Wooten said he gets more calls and letters about roadside trash than any other topic.

"Our beautiful county is being literally trashed," Wooten said. "And you don't see this type of a problem in other counties as bad as we have it here."

Susan Metcalfe, the county's solid waste management director, is listening.

In her proposed budget for next year, Metcalfe plans to ask the county for an additional $100,000 to put two more litter cleanup crews on the road.

Metcalfe has one crew now, consisting of a paid county supervisor and three or four county jail inmates who volunteer for the assignment. That crew covers about 500 miles of roads a year -- a fraction of the 2,600 miles of county-maintained roads.

Another inmate crew under the Road Maintenance Division also does some litter patrol, among other tasks.

"We don't have enough staff and vehicles and inmates to do it all," Metcalfe said. "With the proposed expansion of the cleanup crews in our budget for the next fiscal year, we're looking to triple our efforts, and that would make a big difference."

The inmate crew, on average, picks up about a ton of litter a week.

It will be up to the County Commission, during its budget hearings later this year, to decide whether to put extra funds toward roadside pickups.

"It's basically time for the board to make it a priority," Wooten said. "From what I can see, staff is very willing to attack this problem if they have the resources, and up until this point, they haven't had the resources."

In the meantime, Metcalfe's office is trying to renew interest in the Adopt-a-Highway program, in which groups pick up litter four times a year along their 2-mile road segment. Metcalfe hopes a series of newspaper advertisements during the next few months will encourage more groups to join the program.

Even as Metcalfe looks to increase her division's litter patrol efforts, however, she cannot say for sure that the roadside trash problem is getting worse.

"Certainly it's getting more attention now. It may be getting worse," she said. "One thing we know is that because it's so dry, some of the roadside grass has disappeared so you can see (the trash)."

'It's people doing this'

The skulls of a vulture, a raccoon and a doe sit like trophies on Millie Aumack's dashboard, a few treasures gleaned from picking up countless miles of roadside trash.

"The other day they brought in a four-point buck (skull), with the antlers and everything," said Aumack, who supervises the county's inmate litter patrol crew. "I took it home so nothing would happen to it."

The back of Aumack's small bus is filled with the more routine types of trash: a bin brimming with beer bottles, another holding plastic containers, a third with aluminum cans and a fourth filled with weathered paper. A pile of rusty real estate signs and orphaned hubcaps sits ready to be recycled. A seat torn from a car is set aside for the landfill.

The inmates comb the dusty roadside and bring Aumack buckets of trash, which she sorts among the recycling bins in the bus. There's no doubt in Aumack's mind where the bulk of the garbage comes from.

"It's from people chucking stuff out the window," she said. "It just saddens me to think that most of it is the citizens doing it."

Brown glass beer bottles are the most common item she sees. Fast-food wrappers and crumpled cigarette packs are a close second.

"These are not things that just fly off the back of a garbage truck," Aumack said. "It's people doing this."

One inmate brings over a $1 bill he just found. The inmates can't keep cash or the lottery tickets worth a few bucks that they sometimes find, so Aumack sets the money aside to buy her crew burgers on Fridays.

Last week, her litter patrol covered County Road 486, a street that was cleaned less than two months ago. In one day, the inmates collected 640 pounds of trash from State Road 44 to Pine Ridge.

"Then the next day we drove by and more stuff was already there," Aumack said. "It just breaks our heart."

Every time a resident or county official contacts the Solid Waste Management division with a complaint about the trash along a particular road, a cleanup request is added to Aumack's clipboard. There are nine requests on the list now, and Aumack will head to the next street when her crew finishes with CR 486.

Aumack has no easy answers to the litter problem, although she said it would help if stores offered refunds for empty glass bottles and used paper bags instead of plastic.

"But to me, it's got to start with the citizens," she said. "If we're not doing our part, we can't expect someone else to clean up the mess we're making."

Aumack nods toward the inmates bringing in their pails of trash.

"I ask the guys, "Did you ever throw stuff out the windows?' They say, "Sure we have,' " Aumack said. "And I ask them, "After doing this, are you ever going to do it again?' And they say, "Heck, no!' "

Willing to work

Just crunching the numbers, Metcalfe figures it would take six inmate crews like Aumack's to clean all the county-maintained roads once a year.

Bringing two more crews on board, as she hopes to do next year, would be a start. Wooten said the county could save money by giving those crews two soon-to-be retired buses from the county transit program.

"The program would be called "Litter Bus-ters,' if you get the pun," Wooten said.

But finding the funding will be only half the battle. At times, the county also struggles to get enough inmates to volunteer for litter patrol and other work details throughout the county, such as maintaining the parks, washing county vehicles and cleaning out the kennels at Animal Control.

If the county adds more litter patrols, it will need to encourage enough inmates to volunteer to fill those spots.

A couple of times a month, Metcalfe said, the litter patrol is short-staffed because there are not enough inmates willing to work. On those days, Aumack said, she takes her crew to a pick up a smaller street.

Only offenders convicted of misdemeanors are allowed to work outside the jail, Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno said. Of the 108 sentenced inmates at the jail now, 52 are misdemeanor offenders willing to work, he said.

Some of the remaining inmates are felons who cannot work outside the jail or convicts who, for medical reasons, cannot do the labor, Poliseno said. Another 16 eligible inmates simply don't want to work.

Poliseno said the gain time policy may be part of the problem. Every inmate gets five days knocked off his or her sentence each month. Those who work get up to 10 more days taken off their sentences each month.

"They look at it from the perspective of, "I don't have to work. I'll sit in here and get five days taken off, as opposed to going out and working and getting an additional 10 days off,' " Poliseno said. "Some of them would rather sit around and watch TV."

In the next month or so, Poliseno said the Public Safety Coordinating Council will consider changing the gain time policy to provide a clearer incentive for inmates to work.

"We're looking to motivate more of them to work," he said. "It is up to the council to decide how they want to do that."

Additional cleanups are necessary, Wooten said, but the litter problem also must be attacked from the prevention end. The county should publicize the fines for littering, join Keep America Beautiful and remind garbage haulers to secure their loads, he said.

"We need to come up with ways in which we can educate the public and keep people from throwing their garbage out the window," Wooten said.

Adopt-a-Highway program

Under the county's Adopt-a-Highway program, these 81 groups have agreed to pick up a 2-mile stretch of road at least four times a year. The county provides the orange vests, the gloves and the garbage bags, so all the volunteers have to give is their time, Solid Waste Management Director Susan Metcalfe said. Altogether, the groups listed here cover more than 160 miles of roads, less than 10 percent of all county-maintained roads, Metcalfe said. Anyone interested in joining the Adopt-a-Highway program can call 746-5000.

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