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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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