Local News

Monday, Feb 04 2013 11:03 AM

Caltrans, Bakersfield close to litter-cleanup deal

BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Bakersfield and the California Department of Transportation are hopeful that a deal they're working out will make a major dent in the litter problem plaguing highways that run through the city.

Caltrans is proposing to give the city at least $260,000 a year for two years to hire Bakersfield Homeless Center residents to pick up the trash.

While promising, the agreement hasn't been finalized. There still seemed to be major details to be worked out Monday, and administrators at both Caltrans and the homeless center have to sign the pact.

And the Bakersfield City Council must OK the arrangement, too, said Sal Moretti, the city's solid waste superintendent.

Until 2011, Caltrans contracted with the now-closed Shafter Community Correctional Facility for three full-time inmate crews to pick up trash along Highways 58 and 99 around Bakersfield, plus one crew for roadways in Delano, Wasco and Porterville. But since that contract ended, litter has been accumulating faster than Caltrans and volunteers can pick it up.

Volunteers are mainly limited to highway ramps, and local Caltrans staff only have time for intermittent cleanups, so long stretches of highway have gone untended.

The homeless center crews wouldn't be able to do the same huge amount of work inmate crews did, at least at first.

The four crews of nine to 12 inmates each worked six hours a day, five days a week. One litter cleanup crew cost Caltrans about $125,000 a year, John Liu, deputy district director for maintenance and operations for Caltrans District 6, has said.

One crew from the Bakersfield Homeless Center would cost about $170,000, Moretti said. The workers would be paid minimum wage, with a crew leader getting slightly more, said center CEO Louis Gill.

The amount proposed by Caltrans would cover about a crew and a half, but Moretti said the idea is to get an initiative started and build on it.

"I am absolutely certain we would do this thing incrementally as funding becomes available," he said. "We're going to learn how much we can get done ... and what kind of funding might be coming in and how we can build on it."

Moretti estimated that three full-time crews from the homeless center would be sufficient to keep the highways clean. So the city is looking for additional funding to grow the effort.

Several local companies have expressed an interest in donating, Moretti said. The hope, he said, is that companies, once they see the agreement in place, will use it as a structure to funnel money for more crews from the homeless center.

Those agreements would cover areas that are not in Caltrans' purview, such as parts of Rosedale Highway in the city's jurisdiction.

"Do I believe in the generosity of the local community? I sure do," Moretti said about how much help could be expected. "It's in their best interests to support something that makes the city look better."

PG&E has expressed an interest in donating, city staff said. Company spokeswoman Katie Allen said it's been discussing an agreement to give the city money for cleanup in front of PG&E's property on Rosedale Highway.

Caltrans could kick in more money, Liu said Monday. That's another moving part of the draft contract.

Under the previous contract for inmate workers, Caltrans was responsible for picking up the bags of collected litter, bringing them to a landfill and paying dump fees. It also provided traffic control, such as temporary signs to protect those picking up the trash. If the city took over some of those responsibilities, perhaps through the Bakersfield Homeless Center, Caltrans might be able to offer even more money for this effort, Liu said.

"This is a very, very early draft," Liu said. "A lot of the details still need to be worked out."

The intent of the contract would be to fund two full-time crews, working on Highways 99, 58 and 178 within Bakersfield city limits, he said. But two full-time crews would cost more than $260,000, he added.

When the Shafter prison contract was in place, Caltrans spent about $500,000 a year on three inmate crews for Bakersfield, plus one for roadways in Delano, Wasco and Porterville.

Bakersfield already contracts with the Bakersfield Homeless Center for residents there to work at the city's green waste facility.

"(The city is) very pleased with our work. They're very pleased with our crews," Gill said. "Our people take pride in that."

And positions picking up litter will be easily filled, he said.

"We're not going to have a problem filling the positions. We have people that want to go to work," he said.

"We're not an organization that just wants to facilitate a way for people to always be on assistance. We want to help them get in a position to be employed and productive."

Moretti said he's hopeful Caltrans can process the contract and approve it within three months. Liu aimed for a slightly longer deadline and said the goal is to have the deal approved by Caltrans by July 1.

Approval from the homeless center and the city likely would take less time, Moretti said.

Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, who leads regular volunteer cleanups on highway ramps in the city, expressed optimism about the new contract.

"It's still early in the process, but I have high expectations for the outcome of this potential of Caltrans funding this effort," he said. "Anytime you can take people, residents of the homeless center, and give them a job ... that's terrific. You're going to be able to make a difference for 20 people."

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