Zarqa (Addustour) – Residents in Zarqa, Jordan’s second largest city, are fed up with tones of garbage piling up in their streets and sidewalks knowing that they are paying taxes for waste collection.
Seven months of data collection and research by the journalist has revealed a steady deterioration in the city’s sanitation services due to cumulative corruption at the municipality when it comes to hiring cleaners and maintaining and managing garbage collection trucks.
Repeated Theft, Neglect and Abuse
The soaring budget deficit at the Zarqa Municipality – from debt-free until 2007, but having a debt bigger than JD 13.5 million (19.5 million dollars) in 2012 – is further compounding the situation of public sanitation in a city whose 52 districts produce 800 tons of garbage a day during the summer months, 550 tons a day during winter and 1000 tons a day during the Muslim’s holy month of Ramadan.
According to a survey conducted by this reporter among 200 citizens in two heavily-populated districts: Jabal Al Ameer Hassan and Prince Abdullah, also known as AlGhuweiriyeh, 99% of the respondents described the local sanitary conditions as being “very bad”.
Engineer Falah Amoush, head of the Zarqa Municipal Council since July 2010 blames the sanitation crisis on mistakes committed by his predecessors.
In addition, an increase in the number of Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country and settling in the city and the inability of garbage collection trucks to easily enter the narrow allies making up the heart of the city known as Al-Qasba, has affected the Municipality.
Over 650.000 residents now live in the boundaries of the city — 15.000 to 20.000 per square kilometre, making it one of Jordan’s most populated areas.
The Zarqa Municipality, celebrating its 84th anniversary, has lost the majority of its garbage collection trucks due to repeated theft, neglect and abuse caused by weak regulations and lack of accountability; 85 compressors and compactors bought between 2000 and 2010 and others bought before 2000.
Of the 32 remaining compressors (each carrying 10 to 15 tons of garbage) and 26 compactors (each carrying 3 and 5 tons) 16 are in bad mechanical shape.
Bad Employment Practices
Despite a freeze on staff recruitment over the past years, the Municipality has hired 1.500 people – albeit outside the working cadres. On paper, they were hired as garbage collectors at a cost of JD 5 million a year. A third of these ‘employees’, all university graduates, do not work as garbage collectors due to a “culture of shame”. Shortly after their appointment as garbage collectors they were moved to other administrative jobs by manipulating job description terms. Most of them only show up at the end of the month to collect their wages and others get paid while living outside Jordan. This forced the Municipality to hire 600 guest workers as garbage collectors. Today the Municipality employs 4.125 people – more than double of its actual need.
Staff use up to 85% of the JD 22 million budget allocation per year. To cover an increase in cost of wages, the Municipality has taken a loan from the Cities and Villages Development Bank (CVDB). But it is unable to pay the loan due to weak tax collection caused by favouritism and negligence in a tribally-dominated area.
Amoush, who hails from the largest tribe in the area, says he has hired only 10 employees since taking over. He also had to shut down a few over-staffed departments and close down a few operations like manufacturing garbage bins under a restructuring plan to save money.
At the end of 2010, and with the help of the Greater Amman Municipality, he retrained a few leading employees. And with a JD 1 million grant given by King Abdullah to the Municipality a few months ago, Amoush hopes to “end the sanitation problem within four months”.
But in the eyes of some of the staff who are not satisfied with his management style, Amoush appears to be bloating the staff while portraying the crisis at the Municipality as financial when it is related to management. His restructuring drive has only been partial successful, causing further debts and misplacing staff.
Some of the engineers with more than 18 and 19 years of experience who were operating as district managers were replaced by newcomers carrying no more than high school diplomas.
Several of the Municipality’s employees who were interviewed by the journalist, demanded direct intervention by Minister of Municipals Affairs, Maher Abu Al Saman, to restructure the Municipality.
A Rundown Fleet of Garbage Collection Trucks
Oil and grease stains cover the floors and walls of the Municipality’s Vehicles Maintenance Workshop in Awajan. Inside the sewage-infested “dump site” in Hay Ma’asoum, 42 compressors and compactors, all bought after 2000, were parked along hundreds of other vehicles and machinery bought before 2000. They included dumper trucks, water tankers, bulldozers, chain bulldozers, pickup trucks, compressors, motor engines and thousands of disassembled and scattered parts.
According to independent mechanical engineers such vehicles would have served for a minimum of 20 years if they had undergone regular maintenance. A total of 32 trucks and compressors purchased in 2008 and 2009 were part of the dysfunctional vehicles.
However, Amoush blames this on “faulty technical specifications”, instead of staff abuse, manipulation of the garage inventory and lack of proper security systems.
Amoush has ordered his staff to send 31 broken compressors for repair; including 11 Mercedes trucks that have been stripped of all their parts except for the chassis (the metal framework) and the plate number.
“All the compressors that were sent for repair are registered at the inventory of the Municipality’s warehouses”, he said in response to charges.
The Municipality Garage: Mismanagement and a Waste of Public Funds
But employees at the vehicles’ maintenance department say otherwise. In interviews, they have insisted that there is no monitoring and accountability at the Municipality, encouraging drivers to abuse the machinery so they could get a day off if managers did not approve their request to take time off.
This is in violation of articles 19 and 28 of the Labor Law which stipulates that a worker will be discharged without notice if he/she makes a mistake that results in huge financial losses to his/her employer.
Official documents obtained by the reporter reveal the degree of negligence inside the garage.
One truck broke down after the driver drove it for 130.000 km without changing its engine oil due to lack of routine maintenance and supervision records. Another truck stopped operating because its engine oil was not changed after 65.000 km.
Another official letter blamed “negligence and carelessness” for breaking down the front and back right tires of a vehicle. Another letter shows that the director of the 4th district wrote to the Head of the Municipality Council about the need to repair a “sanitation department vehicle standing idle for a month” following a brawl involving municipal employees.
Most of the Municipality’s compressors, compactors and other machinery is to working since they have been stripped of their frames, doors and windows. In the absence of security cameras, guards, fence and proper surveillance in the area, every part go the machinery can be stolen and sold in the local market. According to a former garage manager and several employees, any person can walk into the garage; especially when staff is changing shifts.
Only four of the original seven guards on each shift are active. At night, only two guards, and sometimes one, protect the area of about 5.000 square meters.
The spare parts warehouse, which contains valuable items, is also without guards, according to employees – a claim denied by Amoush who says it is “sufficiently guarded round-the-clock”.
The garage, employing 200 to 250 employees – has become an important source of extra income for its supervisors, employees and administrators.
In violation of their terms of employment, some collude with owners of private garages who take in “both faulty and perfectly operating equipment” for repair in exchange for a fee – instead of repairing them at the Municipality’s garage as stated in internal regulations.
The investigative reporter found that three former garage managers used to send broken equipment and vehicles to workshops they owned, at the expense of the Municipality’s treasury.
Amoush explains that in one case he has revoked the permit of a private garage run by one municipal garage employee because it was violating employment contracts.
Another way to make illegal profits is to steal spare parts of vehicles piled up in the garage and in the scrap yard and sell them to merchants who sell them back to the Municipality.
A garage employee who wishes to remain anonymous said he once carved a symbol onto one such spare part before it disappeared. A few days later, he was surprised when it was purchased from a merchant. Another said a district manager approached him two weeks ago after dark and left with two tires from two different compressors.
A third way of making illegal money entails issuing invoices for thousands of dinars for vehicles already inside the garage. One invoice was issued for purchasing spare parts and the repair of at least four water tankers belonging to the Municipality’s Agriculture Department for a total of JD 28.000. But the tankers never left the yard and were only given new paint.
To prove that they were never repaired and put back into service, the author of this report obtained a copy of the fuel records showing that both tankers were not supplied with one litre of diesel since they were parked. To erase any trace, the maintenance card was removed from the vehicle’s files to eliminate any record of previous repairs thus enabling employees to send requests to buy new spare parts.
According to one garage employee, the management changed 41 ‘gears’ on 7 vehicles in a short period of time. Another official report sent by the manager of the 5th district complained about the theft of most parts from one of the water tankers he had sent for repair at the Municipality’s garage.
“Four and a half months ago, water tanker number 10307 was sent to the Municipality garage for repair,” the letter reads. “Not only did it take that long but the garage management never repaired the tank. Instead, the front chair, the air valve and the entire dipper were stolen while the vehicle was in the garage”.
He demanded the Municipality garage to take full responsibility for the delay in repairing the tanker – and also for the missing parts.
Another document reveals that one of the compressors was robbed of its parts three months after it was sent to a private garage for body works – the same workshop that the Municipality dealt with more than once.
The document shows that “compressor number 22085 was sent for repair outside the Municipality garage three months ago. After this negligent delay, a committee was formed and appraised the situation as follows: “The compressor was missing its air hose and the lid of the air filter, (causing an incredible rise in temperature), the engine is incorrectly positioned, the air fan and radiator design is wrong, the front motor bases does not match, the dynamo and the electric system are not well placed, the gear has no hanging support and the motor is much weaker than the original engine.”
Nawaf Yerfas, who managed the Vehicles Department before Amosuh appointed him as one of his advisors, acknowledges these thefts.
He says “When it comes to expensive spare parts for vehicles, there is wholesale theft. This is a result of the Municipality’s insisting on repairing broken vehicles in repair shops and garages outside the Municipality’s garage, paying huge fees for the service, while it is possible to repair vehicles inside the Municipality garages which employ highly experienced technicians”.
According to Yerfas, these transgressions have contributed to inflating the garage budget to JD 1 million in 2012 from JD 500 thousand in 2011 without “positively reflecting on the Municipality’s fleet of garbage collection trucks”.
He added: a merchant whose name rose to stardom at the same time with the advent of Amoush, once entered the Municipality’s garage in a Municipality vehicle as the shift changed. Although not an employee, he was able to clear several parts from a Municipality vehicle and place them in the trunk of his private vehicle that was parked outside the garage in the absence of security guards, employees and internal and external checks and controls”.
Another garage supervisor said, “some merchants can easily cash in their invoices by following up on them from office to office” where as well-known car dealerships and insurance companies have trouble getting paid for their services.
Amoush has formed 15 investigative committees since his appointment to the municipal council to look into allegations of corruption. “But nothing has been proven,” he says vowing to take to court any employee if evidence of corruption is established.
However, the Jordan’s Anti-Corruption Commission (JACC) is looking into seven cases involving the Zarqa Municipality,” one JACC official told the journalist. He said that the Commission has shelved a number of other cases – without specifying how many – because they did not amount to ‘suspicion of corruption’.
He said that he was not aware if any of these cases were linked to the Municipality garage and its vehicles.
Garbage Containers – A Deal That Does Not Meet Standards
The Zarqa Municipality recently approved a contract worth JD 80.000 for the purchase of 300 new garbage containers after the Municipality closed down its garbage container factory.
Documents indicate that the containers purchased by the Municipality do not meet specifications, a claim denied by Amoush who says containers produced by the Municipality’s team would deteriorate within a week if exposed to sun.
Up until 2006, the Zarqa Municipality used to manufacture its own garbage containers in accordance with specifications and to sell them to other municipalities and third parties – providing a good source of income for the Municipality. One document shows a deal for the sale of containers by the Municipality to another party for JD 170 per container.
Today, purchasing one container costs JD 300.
Yerfas, who also managed the garbage container outlet, said the factory produced 15 containers a day according to top specifications. In addition, the outlet used to make big rectangular containers that are easily rolled to and emptied onto garbage collection trucks. In addition it produced shovels, dustpans and lighting fixtures before the Municipality started to buy them from the market at a higher cost.
Yerfas also claims Amoush discarded another invention of this factory known as “sidewalk sweeper”. This sweeper was able to do the work of 15 workers and could remove six tons of dirt, sand and cigarette butts from sidewalks. The Municipality also shut down the carwash and car service station affecting the outside appearance of its cars and trucks.
Errors Piling Up
The shortage of vehicles has made it difficult for the Municipality to collect trash and to dispose it at Al Ghabawi landfill, 30 km from the city of Zarqa.
Instead, a landfill was created behind the Zarqa Chamber of Commerce to reduce the distance and to form the initial point for garbage collection before taking it to Al Ghabawi.
However, the Municipality started burning the trash that piled up in this landfill and only sent small quantities to Al Ghabawi.
Local residents filed complaints saying that the fumes from the burning waste were annoying them. After the environmental authorities intervened, the Municipality transferred this temporary landfill to another nearby area that normally is being used during Ramadan, when the quantity of trash doubles, reaching 1000 tons a day.
This investigation was conducted with support from ARIJ – Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and coached by Sa’ad Hattar and Abdullah Al Sa’afin.