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To Clean Up SD Budget Dump, Talk Trash

— We’re told that San Diego has a $73 million budget deficit. But here’s a way to get us more than halfway to the goal of solving that problem. Charge people to have their trash picked up.

If that sounds like an irresponsible swindle of taxpayers, have in mind that nobody in San Diego County who lives outside the city proper – nobody – gets trash collection for free. Some claim that San Diegans already pay for trash removal through property taxes. But suburbanites pay taxes too, and they still pay to have their trash collected.

San Diego city residents get their sweet deal thanks to a morsel of municipal code called the People’s Ordinance.

The People’s Ordinance dates to 1919, and I’ve heard more than one version of the story. Some say that populists insisted on free trash collection after they learned the city fathers were charging residents for it, then double dipping by turning around and selling the garbage to hog farmers.

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith says the original People’s Ordinance ordered the city to collect the people’s trash and charge for the service, but the second part of that equation never took place. He says in the 1980s San Diego amended the ordinance to codify the practice of collecting garbage, free of charge, for owners of single family homes.

Historic research I’ll leave to others. Suffice it to say the People’s Ordinance means about half of San Diego residents get free trash collection.

There’d be nothing wrong with collecting garbage for free if San Diego had a surplus of cash. But it doesn’t. Free trash pickup is also an anomaly, and that seems to argue that this is a problem which needs to be corrected.

Virtually all other cities in the county leave trash collection to the private sector. Typically, they establish a franchise, giving companies like Waste Management or EDCO a monopoly on trash collection within city limits. In return, trash haulers pay the city a franchise fee. In Encinitas, public works analyst Bill Wilson says an annual franchise fee of about $400,000 goes straight into the general fund. In larger local cities, franchise fees approach a couple million dollars.

Yesterday, I sent out a mass email to my co-workers at KPBS, asking them how much they pay for trash collection if they live outside the city. I heard back from about 20 folks. From them, I gathered that the average fee for collection of trash, recycling and yard waste was around $20 a month.

Another argument in favor of charging for trash in San Diego is fairness. Half of San Diego residents – people who live in condo complexes, in gated communities or on federal property – do not get free trash pickup. There are some exceptions to that rule, but Mayor Jerry Sanders says he wants to make no exceptions in order to save as much money as possible.

And how much would he save if he could eliminate San Diego’s sanitation department and make everyone pay for trash collection? About $43 million a year, says Goldsmith. The problem is… Sanders and the city council can’t do that. If they want to abolish free trash service, required by the People’s Ordinance, they have to go to the voters.

So how do you think San Diego homeowners would vote, given the choice between paying for trash pickup and getting it for free? I’m guessing they’ll say, “Thanks, but I’ll keep not paying for it.” On the other hand, maybe supporters of charging for trash could tell condo owners and people living on private roads, “You’re getting screwed! Vote to make freeloading homeowners pay their fair share!!”

Keep in mind, also, that you get what you pay for. In San Diego, recycling and yard-waste collection take place every other week. In Chula Vista, where Allied Waste Services has the franchise, they do it every week. Lynn France, that city’s environmental program manager, says they also offer bulk item pickup. No so in San Diego.

You can’t relish the idea of all those City of San Diego trash haulers losing their jobs if the city privatizes garbage service. You’d have to hope they’d be first in line for jobs with the private companies that take over. In the end, San Diego (and San Diego voters) must to be realistic about the services the city can afford to provide for free.

P.S. I live in San Diego and have free trash removal.

P.P.S. Leave a comment and let me know what you think of privatizing trash collection in America’s finest.

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Avatar for user 'bleudogsd'

bleudogsd | December 8, 2010 at 8:53 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Im tired of everything being subsidized. This shouldn't be a hard decision. We probably have special interests blocking this necessity for sake of job protection.

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Avatar for user 'BrianB'

BrianB | December 8, 2010 at 9:14 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Let's see, we didn't vote for Prop D b/c the city taxpayers didn't want new taxes to compensate the city for pulling money out of the pension fund. But now we can get it paid for by shifting the taxes to just the homeowners? Interesting. Renters get off free, homeowners pick up the tab. So homeowners should have voted Yes to Prop D b/c they are going to be the only ones paying for the city's pension mess? Should have known this before the vote. :-(

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Avatar for user 'SDListener99'

SDListener99 | December 8, 2010 at 9:26 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I would be fine with paying for trash service, but not if any of the cost savings goes to support the pension mess in any manner. I do not think anything will pass without major pension overhaul. Bankruptcy and reversal of the deals that caused the pension shortfall is the only solution at this point.

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Avatar for user 'Barley'

Barley | December 8, 2010 at 9:30 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

BrianB, I could not agree with you more. How is it that we all know the San Diego Pension system is broken and needs to be fixed, but nothing is being done about it? The people have spoken (see the Prop D results). No new taxes/fees. Pay for the shortfall by fixing the pension program!

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Avatar for user 'BrianB'

BrianB | December 8, 2010 at 9:37 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Yes, politicians never want to fix anything (they would lose their union support if they did). So it's much easier to just create new taxes. You certainly don't want to upset their biggest campaign contributors.

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Avatar for user 'Zac'

Zac | December 8, 2010 at 10:05 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Why does everyone keep referring to it as "free" trash pickup? It's not free, the city pays for it. The citizens pay for the city (yup, it's true, the city makes ZERO income on their own...shocking, I know) and by the simple math rule that if A=B and B=C then A must equal C... the citizens pay for their trash pickup. City leaders would get a lot more credibility from me if they'd just call it what it is.. charging more taxes.

As an end result, I would vote for more taxes in the form of an additional charge for trash pickup. But only if the city made responsible cuts first and was accountable for how the additional income was used. I'm sad to say that's just more than I feel we can trust city leaders with.

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Avatar for user 'wordwright'

wordwright | December 8, 2010 at 10:55 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Tom, I too live in San Diego (since 1983). I too put up with the poor leadership since Mayor Mo'. I find that one of my only perks is not having to pay for trash removal. I have the banal pleasure of watching ball teams getting sweetheart deals while our schools go down the drain and watching the population density increase in my surrounding neighborhoods while not improving access and not getting a new Main Library...
So get the money from those who have unethically taken advantage of San Diego and created our problem: the unions, the politicians like Pete Wilson, Susan Golding, Rodger 'the dodger' Hedgecock..., the franchise teams with their golden egg deals - the Padres and Chargers. Don't look to my pocket or trash collection to pay for double dipping pensioners making more than I do in health care.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | December 8, 2010 at 4:32 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Glad to hear from so many of you! Let me see if I can respond. Yes, trash collection in San Diego is free. I say this because every other homeowner in San Diego county, who lives outside the city, pays a fee for trash collection that's above and beyond their tax burden. I don't hear taxpayers from Chula Vista and La Mesa complaining that they're being robbed because the city doesn't pick up the full cost of trash hauling. Free trash collection in San Diego is an extraordinary entitlement, and that needs to be considered as the city decides what to cut. Anytime you cut services you force citizens to find those services elsewhere and to pay for them. Privatization is not a tax increase, and calling privatization of garbage collection a tax increase is odd logic. I can understand people who say we should fix the pension mess before we do anything. But reversing a system that's based on vested pension rights, which are protected by law, will take time. Bankruptcy? I won't go there. My main point is that everybody wants services but nobody wants to pay for them. We need to make some hard choices, and in the context of what everyone else does, I don't think choosing to charge homeowners $20 a month for trash collection is the hardest decsion there is.

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Avatar for user 'TomWins'

TomWins | December 10, 2010 at 12:09 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Mr. Fudge, you are not providing our community good service with this story because you are simply selling the city's press release.

The planned privatizing as presented will certainly result in a tax increase. I lived in a condo in San Diego for many years and paid less than $15 per unit for our monthly trash pick-up. Now I live in a single family home and pay twice as much in property taxes as I ever paid while in the condo. This is despite the fact that the condo was 1,200 sq ft and the home only 100 sq ft more and valued at $70,000 more. I've considered the increased property tax to be more than enough to pay for trash pick-up.

If this plan goes through, I know I will be paying more than $15 a month for trash pick-up. The city has come up with a way to increase their income on the back of single family home owners. They will charge far more than the actual cost of trash pick-up.

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Avatar for user 'SDListener99'

SDListener99 | December 13, 2010 at 8:26 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Tom, as I mentioned in my first note, I am more than willing to pay for trash service. I agree that the city needs more revenue and if the current system is not fair, I am willing to true it up. The problem is that I am not willing to give the city -any- additional funds until the pension mess is cleaned up. I won't vote for -any- measures that involve more taxes, no matter how sound such a measure might seem. I think the city needs to understand this fundamental issue as I don't think I am the only one in this boat. There are multiple pension related issues -- the purchased service years, the 13th check, the double dipping, the annual payouts that exceed salary averages -- that have to be cleared up first. If there is a way other than bankruptcy to make this happen, I am all for it.

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Avatar for user 'EastCountySD'

EastCountySD | December 13, 2010 at 9:46 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Trash collection is not free just because you don't have an itemized bill. Just like police and fire protection. City residents are paying for all of these.

Now if there is additional revenues needed we should talk about the best way to get those. Talking about getting trash for free currently is as crazy as saying police and fire are free. Nonsense.

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