By Errol Castens
OXFORD – It doesn’t take much imagination to make a joke at Amberlyn Liles’ expense.
As the superintendent of Oxford’s sanitation department, there’s the easy “trashy lady” pejorative, or the ancient line, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a dump like this?”
And on it goes, but the Greenwood native and University of Mississippi graduate takes it in good humor. After all, the job is a bit unconventional for someone who worked in a jewelry store during college.
Liles had been assistant superintendent for not quite two years when her boss, Eddie Anderson, took early retirement in January of this year. She learned a lot of ropes in those 18 months.
“We’re called the sanitation department, but we’re so much more,” she said. “We pick up the garbage, the recycling and the rubbish, but we also maintain the city rights-of-way and the cemetery. We also operate the transfer station, where our garbage is transferred onto trailer trucks to send to the regional landfill at Pontotoc, and we operate the rubbish landfill. We have 45 employees.”
The challenges on Liles’ job range from equipment failures to the occasional cooking oil overflow near the Square to householders who don’t package their garbage correctly.
“Most customers who recycle do it very well, so we have less than two percent contamination. On the garbage side, you’re supposed to bag your trash, and then it’s supposed to be in a garbage can – no loose trash,” she said. “I wish I could educate every resident about it.”
The stereotypes about student neighborhoods are “pretty true,” Liles said, but part-time residences can be troublesome, too. She credits that partly to homeowners from metro areas where garbage trucks with hydraulic arms can lift anything in a 95-gallon cart.
“We don’t allow carts that big; we could have an employee fall off in there trying to get the material out,” she said. “And some people leave the lid off their garbage cans and let them fill with water.”
Garbage isn’t Liles’ first love regarding the sanitation department. She joined the city in 2001 as its recycling coordinator, so early in the program she was its only employee. Other than transporting the bins to the recycling center, “I was trying to do it all – the education programs, the physical labor. Some days I’d sit in front of that baling machine and cry because I couldn’t get the bales to tie.”
Ronald Delbridge’s hiring made everything go more smoothly.
“I started doing more education. I would go to the schools with the double decker bus and teach kids how to recycle, and to ride the bus to the recycling drop-off location, their ticket was something that could be recycled,” she said. “Some of the kids had never had the opportunity before to ride the double decker bus, and it was a huge thrill.”
Under Liles’ leadership, Oxford began a pilot curbside recycling program that eventually expanded to a citywide service. The recycling program has won the city countless accolades, making it the go-to program for cities and counties looking to start their own.
One of the prices of being the sanitation superintendent in a town known for its beauty is that Liles has to view those tree-shaded streets and landscaped curbs with a more critical eye.
“Instead of looking at the pretty houses and the flowers when I’m driving, I’m wondering why that recycling bin is still at the curb or if we missed that pile of yard waste or was it just put at the curb,” Liles said. “My guys play a big role in keeping Oxford as pretty as it is.”