Originally created 04/09/03

Savannah pays woman to scoop horse manure



SAVANNAH, Ga. - At the time Florence Jackson started her patrol at about 2 p.m., the manure was really starting to bake.

Ms. Jackson, Savannah's first equine sanitation technician, hurried to load the pickup truck with the tools of her trade - a steel-haired broom, an oversize dust pan, a plastic barrel and a disinfectant sprayer.

"If you wait too long, the manure dries out and it gets dusty," she said, covering her mouth. "When it gets like that and the wind blows, watch out."

Ms. Jackson had been on the job for just a few days, but she already knew where most of the "hot spots" were across the Historic District of Georgia's oldest city. She headed to Congress and Whitaker streets and spied an average-size spread smeared across 10 feet of pavement.

"Oh gosh, I have a lot to pick up already," she said. "That's fresh. Sometimes you get an extreme amount here."

Horse carriage tour companies - like everything else tourist related in Savannah - have been multiplying over the past few years. City records show 31 horses pull 19 carriages for three companies in Savannah.

Although the horse-drawn carriages might add considerable charm to the moss-draped streets, they also bring an unavoidable byproduct - puddles of urine and piles of manure.

"It's foul," City Manager Michael Brown said. "These odors are absolutely obnoxious, and if we allow it to continue it will put the Historic District out of business."

The last straw for Mr. Brown was when he was talking a few months ago with some tourists at Bull and Broughton streets - perhaps the worst spot in the city for equine odors. The smell was so bad that Mr. Brown had to move down the street to carry on his conversation.

He was immediately on his cell phone with Parking Services Director Barbara Colbert, whose department issues permits to the companies. Ms. Colbert said she had been pleading with the carriage companies for more than a year to do something about the waste.

"We tried to get them to combine efforts, to rotate spots. We laid out a plan to see if it would work, and it didn't," she said. "The companies are responsible for addressing their own spills. They just chose not to."

The city decided to clean up the mess itself and send the companies the bill. It hired Ms. Jackson as the horse manure scooper and three weeks ago approved paying Savannah Cleaning Systems $26,000 to design a trailer-mounted "equine sanitation system."

It should be ready by early May.

Savannah Cleaning Systems owner Mitzi Lutz describes the pickup-pulled contraption she is designing as a "clean and capture system."

It includes a scrubber and pressure washer that sprays generator-heated water while simultaneously vacuuming the slurry into a collection vat. When it gets hot in the summer and the waste really turns foul, she plans to add a natural bacterial digester to the mixture to really control odors.

For some downtown residents, it couldn't come sooner. Ms. Colbert said one property owner threatened to sue because the odors got so bad. Another called to say she was embarrassed to have company over.

"I can't keep my doors open because of it," said Roger Reddick, a business owner. "Right here is their main spot. It's not a pleasant thing to see and definitely not a pleasant thing to smell."

Carriage company owners acknowledge the problem - you can't tell a horse when it can go, they say, and diapers overflow and break - but they said they doubt it warrants a full-time employee.

The city says it will reduce Ms. Jackson's hours if her services aren't needed eight hours a day and charge the three companies less. Starting this year, it plans to send bills to each of them for $9,670, which will pay for Ms. Jackson's salary, in addition to the cost of Ms. Lutz's machine and a new pickup truck spread out over seven years.

Diane Brannen, the owner of Historic Savannah Carriage Tours, said that fee - on top of the bad economy, a $1 per passenger preservation fee they already pay, and normal feeding, grooming and stabling costs - could spell disaster for some.

"We've always been in favor of this, but the city can't overlook the fact that we make a huge contribution to tourism - I won't let them forget that," Ms. Brannen said. "The ambience we create and things we do rake in untold dollars for this community. The waste is a byproduct we have to deal with, but it's not an exact science."

Ms. Jackson is learning through trial and error and using her unusually sensitive nose - something she calls both a blessing and a curse - to track down Historic District droppings, wherever they might be.

"If a horse decides to do something around here, I'm right on the spot," she said while spraying a puddle of urine. "This is my job, and I'll stay up on it."