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Free Trash Pickup in San Diego

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Aired 7/31/09

Should San Diego resident continue to get free trash pickup? The County Grand Jury says the city should charge for trash collection, but the City Council hasn't voted on idea.

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: San Diego Week host Gloria Penner speaks with KPBS reporter Katie Orr and local editors about trash fees in the City of San Diego.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Okay, well, here’s a little history. Ninety years ago, San Diego city dwellers rebelled against a trash collection fee because their trash had become a moneymaker for the city, which sold the trash to pig farmers. It was called the People’s Ordinance and that’s when it was born. And the city still doesn’t charge a fee for trash pickup at private residences but there’s been a lot of talk lately about changing that since the city needs money. And we’re talking about the City of San Diego, of course. So, Ricky, first of all, what would it take to impose a trash fee on single family homes?

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, I think the city could just do that but they would require significantly more political will than they currently have to do that. This comes up time and again and gets shot down time and again because people really don’t like the idea of when you get trash pickup—I won’t say free because that really makes people mad—but when you get it only for the cost of your property taxes, that’s something you don’t want to let go. And so it comes up, particularly when the city is facing what it calls a structural budget deficit, which means a chronic situation where you have more expenses than you have revenue. And this is seen as a way to get more revenue if you were to charge people ten bucks a month for tra…

PENNER: How much?

YOUNG: Ten buck – well, it would cover about $40, $50 million, which seems small compared to the deficits they’ve been having lately. You know, but it would obviously help the situation in the city budget.

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): I believe there are a lot of people that would say that you would need to take that to a vote of the public.

PENNER: Yeah, because it’s a fee or a tax.

DONOHUE: It’s a tax, yeah.

PENNER: It’s a tax and…

YOUNG: Well, it’s not – it’s actually a fee, I mean…

PENNER: It’s a fee.

YOUNG: …you just pay for it like you pay for water, which they can – They can increase water rates without a vote of the people.

PENNER: All right, and let…

YOUNG: Although previous changes to it have gone to a vote of the people but I think you could argue it’s a fee as opposed to a tax.

DONOHUE: But correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the prevailing legal opinion at the city right now is that you would need a vote.

YOUNG: I – You know, I don’t think anybody even wants to do it at this point, to take it to a vote. There is not enough will to move forward with it.

PENNER: So why isn’t there enough will?

YOUNG: Well, I think because people don’t want to pay. I mean, they don’t want to pay tax increases or fee increases, and they make that loud and clear every time it comes up.

PENNER: All right, let’s – let’s talk about east county, Miriam. I mean, this – we’re talking about City of San Diego stuff. But it seems to me every place else other than the City of San Diego, people pay to have their trash picked up…

MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): We do.

PENNER: …and they also pay – you know, they also do property taxes.

RAFTERY: That’s right. We pay for trash, we pay for sewer. Everything is a separate fee out there in the cities out in east county so I was actually very surprised to hear that people in San Diego have such a good deal here and aren’t paying anything.

PENNER: Well, you know, I think the interesting thing is that the – obviously, the San Diego City Council, according to Ricky, doesn’t have the will to do anything about this because people are opposed to it, but I wonder if they really are? And so I’m going to ask our callers. If you live in the City of San Diego, are you opposed to paying a fee of maybe ten dollars a month to having your trash picked up? Do you think that’s a fair thing? And especially since single family homes don’t pay now while multi-family residences and businesses do. So I’ll give you our number and I’ll wait to hear from you, and then I’ll ask Andrew, what’s going on with this inequity? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. It sounds unequal.

DONOHUE: It does and I think that’s one of the more compelling arguments for it. One of the larger problems we just experienced, which is this idea that – I think that people would be completely unlikely to ever approve any sort of tax increase with the city right now. This has been one of those issues that’s been on the table since I first started covering San Diego City Council in 2002 and ever since then you’ve had this never-ending battle which is, you know, one loud group says San Diego employees are paid too much and there’s no way we’re giving any more money to such a bloated bureaucracy. You have another side that says San Diego residents are cheap, they’re unwilling to pay for any sort of services, and that’s where it is. And that’s why we’re stuck, you know, seven years later in the same exact spot with the city in a deeper and deeper financial crisis every day because that’s the sort of two camps you have and you have a mayor right now who’s saying—and for a long time has said—he’s not going to even try to raise any sort of taxes because he needs the people to be ready when it’s – I think it’s becoming more and more clear that the people need somebody to stand up and put together some sort of plan that actually leads them out of this because the city’s, you know, very slowly going down a pretty perilous path right now unless somebody comes together with some sort of plan.

PENNER: So is the mayor starting to act like a lame duck in giving up some leadership to new blood on the council, let’s say, like Carl DeMaio, Marti Emerald, Sherri Lightner?

DONOHUE: Absolutely. I think – I’m shocked by how little leadership he’s shown on this financial issue in the last year or two. He’s basically resorted to trying to underfund the pension system, which was the – was something that got his predecessor kicked out and got him elected. And he’s taken to blaming it on the state when I’m sure there are some – plenty of problems going on in the state but we have the same exact problems here at city hall.

PENNER: Okay, so I’m – I’m just dipping into this other subject and we’re going to come back to trash in a moment but, Ricky, let me ask you about that. I mean, we had the situation with the ethics commission, where the mayor wanted to replace one member of the ethics commission. The council hasn’t done anything about it. They were unable to move on this. Is leadership missing now from the City of San Diego?

YOUNG: Well, I think there has been some leadership in terms of trying to tackle these issues on the ethics commission. You’ve seen a move to try to make it appointed by judges instead of having elected officials do it when the elected officials are the ones being investigated by the ethics commission. So there’s a little leadership there. The mayor then stepped in and said he’d like to take a look at the process as well although it’s not clear he likes the judge idea so…

PENNER: Well, at this point, is the mayor doing anything to satisfy the grand jury who said, you know, it’s time for San Diego to have a trash collection fee?

YOUNG: The mayor’s been pretty quiet on this issue. I would like to note, since you mentioned the grand jury, also the independent budget analysts have pushed for this thing and it would, in fact, require an election. I’m sorry about saying that earlier.

PENNER: It would have to go to the vote.

YOUNG: Yeah.

PENNER: We’re talking about trash collection.

YOUNG: And to correct another perception that’s out there, there’s sort of a shorthand that’s taken that single family homes get the free pickup and apartments and businesses don’t. We’ve reported a couple of times in the last several months, there are apartments that get free trash pickup and there are businesses that get free trash pickup. There’s different – they’re kind of grandfathered in and there’s some other factors going on. But they – I think that sort of adds to the unfairness argument that even within these subsets, there are people treated differently.

PENNER: Okay, I tell you what, let’s hear from – I asked – I asked our callers how they feel about trash fee, trash collection fee, and we’ve gotten a lot of responses so let’s hear from some of them. Ken in North Park is with us. Ken…

KEN (Caller, North Park): Yeah.

PENNER: …what’s your feeling about all this?

KEN: Well, it’s funny, you just hit onto my point. I own a small restaurant in North Park and I pay several hundred dollars for a trash pickup every month. And about two blocks away from me is one of my competitors, another restaurant, and he gets free pickup. Half the businesses in this neighborhood get free pickup. And it just makes no sense. The equability of it is just unbelievable.

PENNER: So

KEN: And the second – I had a second point.

PENNER: Sure.

KEN: I’m from Port – I’m from Portland, Oregon originally and in Portland, you pay a fee based on the amount of garbage you put out. So if you are very, very judicious about recycling, you’ll get a mini-can and you’ll pay half the fee as your neighbor who’s a disgusting slob and puts out tons of garbage. Our system encourages wasteful, wasteful, wasteful disposal instead of recycling.

PENNER: Miriam, is that what they do in outside of San Diego? Do you pay by the pound or ounce or amount of garbage?

RAFTERY: I can only speak for the area that I live in…

PENNER: Yes.

RAFTERY: …and, no, that’s not the way it’s done out there, although they certainly encourage recycling in other ways but…

PENNER: Right, so I guess if you recycle then and did composting, you might not have to pay anything. Thank you. I did not know that, Ken, that they did that in Oregon. And, you know, sometimes Oregon is way ahead…

RAFTERY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …of the rest of us. Thanks again. Elizabeth in La Jolla is now with us. Hi, Elizabeth, you’re on with the editors.

ELIZABETH (Caller, La Jolla): Hi. I would definitely favor paying for trash pickup, and I like the man from Oregon’s idea of doing it on an incremental basis according to how much trash one generates. And I think particularly for residences, I think that we have had a free pass for quite a long time because of Prop 13 that should’ve supported a lot of things we’re talking about, and I feel that basically we should pay for what we say we want.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, and, callers, I want to tell you you can carry on this conversation online. Just go to Editors Roundtable page at KPBS.org and you can continue this. You know, somebody in my family used to say when they would see a lot of garbage, that family’s either too clean or too dirty. So, you know, it depends. It’s in the eye of the beholder, I think. Yes, go ahead, Ricky.

YOUNG: That argument that the caller just made is probably the one you would see moving forward. There are no council members really willing to say we need revenue, give us a trash tax, but there are ones arguing that it’s the only way to have a recycling program that makes sense.

PENNER: I want to get to one final question which seems to be developing out of all of this. Next year the voters of San Diego are going to decide if they want to keep the strong mayor form of government. Can we expect a fierce political fight based on our experience now with the city’s first strong mayor? Andrew, what do you think?

DONOHUE: I – I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure that this is one of those issues that’s really going to fire people up and, alternatively, I’m not sure that we’re – that you’re going to have an organized or well-financed opposition, which is, you know, the most important part. But, you know, this is sort of – the reason that we created this strong mayor form of government was so that we would have a strong leader out there to take us where we needed to go and I think your caller from North Park was a great example of that. If you had a mayor or a leader out there on the street corner having a press conference, saying it’s not fair for this business owner to pay that, and actually pointing out those inequities and taking the people where they needed to be, I think the city would be in a much better position.

PENNER: Ricky Young.

YOUNG: I think it’s a very rare Republican leader who’s going to go out and campaign for a tax increase or a fee increase of any sort. So I think it’s unrealistic to expect that. I also think given the mayor’s strong showing last year, winning reelection in June without even having to go to a runoff, that that shows the people are generally satisfied with this form of government.

PENNER: Okay, and final word from you, Miriam Raftery.

RAFTERY: Actually, in east county, voters did pass several tax increases on themselves and it’s because Republican leaders out there actually did go out and make the case to the people that we – they needed a sales tax increase or we were going to see safety services cut, and we needed a school bond passed or we were going to see, you know, crumbling and dangerous schools for our kids not get fixed and…

YOUNG: Well, those are some of those rare Republican leaders I mentioned.

RAFTERY: Yeah.

PENNER: And with that, I have to say thank you very much, editors. Terrific discussion. I want to thank Miriam Raftery, Andrew Donohue, and Ricky Young, and I also want to say goodbye to our intern Jackie Kaeding, who’s going back to school in the Midwest. We’ll miss you. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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