San Diego trash fees could exceed estimates if Measure B passes
San Diegians who put their trash into city-owned bins could face a new fee for trash removal if voters agree to allow the city to start charging residents for the service.
Voters who live in the city will weigh in Nov. 8 on Measure B, deciding whether to amend the “People’s Ordinance” – a century-old San Diego law that has ensured free trash collection mostly for the city’s single-family homes. Most apartment and condo owners have to pay private haulers to remove their trash.
The city estimates that more than half of property owners in the city receive free trash pickup. That estimate is based on 53% of the city’s housing stock consisting of single-family homes, which the city estimates make up most of its customers. Businesses and residents living on private streets or in large apartments and condos do not get the service.
The city budgeted $79 million this year to cover trash services, including $59 million from the general fund.
Anyone living in an eligible home would likely be impacted if voters agree to allow the city the ability to impose trash fees — whether they are homeowners who get charged the new fee or renters whose property owners pass on the fee through rental agreements.
Supporters say removing the ban on charging the city’s customers for trash pickup is long overdue because it gives some city residents a rare, exclusive benefit of free trash services, but not others who must pay private haulers.
San Diego Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who co-sponsored the ballot measure with Councilmember Joe LaCava, said the city has not had the resources to expand services, such as increasing recycling pickups to once a week and picking up larger items.
“I want them to receive high quality services, and what Measure B does is provide the resources necessary to make it easier to provide the high quality services that folks want,” Elo-Rivera told inewsource.
Opponents of the ballot measure say homeowners already pay for trash service through their property taxes, which go to fund all city services.
“Measure B is a massive tax increase at a time when inflation is already skyrocketing and working families are struggling,” said former Councilmember Carl DeMaio, who launched a campaign against the ballot measure.
A big unknown in the debate is exactly how much money the city will be able to collect – and the exact fee customers will pay – if voters say “yes” to trash fees.
That’s because voters will decide only whether to give the city the authority to charge a fee, and their approval won’t lock in any specifics on how much they’ll be charged. The city will weigh fee amounts later should the measure pass in November.
The question gets murkier because, as inewsource found, the city doesn’t know exactly how many customers it will charge for trash services. When inewsource asked for a list of properties and customers who currently get free trash pickup the city said it does not collect or track that data.
Nevertheless, city analysts estimate that the city could charge customers a monthly fee of between $23 and $29 and cover its current costs to provide trash services and also recoup the cost of a billing and customer service program. But those estimates are based on the city just maintaining existing levels of service, not expanding them. They also do not account for inflation, which is at historic highs.
Because a study to determine exact fees “could take several years to complete, and the cost to provide this service may increase over the next several years, the actual fee levied could be higher,” unless the city agrees to subsidize some of the costs, the city’s analysis says.
The lack of clarity about what the true cost will be for customers is a problem, said San Diego County Taxpayers Association CEO and President Haney Hong, an opponent of the ballot measure.
“That the city doesn’t have effective records in and of itself is a warning sign,” he said.
Proposed changes to the People’s Ordinance
If the ballot measure passes, San Diego residents would lose a free service enjoyed by few other communities across the state.
San Diego is currently one of just three municipalities in California with a population of at least 7,000 that doesn’t charge residents a fee specifically for trash pickup, according to research city staff compiled. Trash collection fees charged in other California cities vary dramatically – as high as $143 a month in San Jose to $24 a month in Long Beach, according to a city report.
If Measure B passes, the trash fee revenues would pay for waste management directly, instead of pulling from the general fund. City officials say this change could free up millions of dollars that could be used on public services — such as parks, libraries and public safety — that benefit all residents.
Another complication in the garbage debate is that residences other than single-family homes likely get their trash picked up at no cost, too. Ifhey have a city bin and access to a public street within the city’s service route, their trash will get picked up for free.
That’s because the law currently does not spell out what type of home is eligible for the trash pickup. It also doesn’t specify the number of bins a resident or property can have. You just have to have adequate space for storage and access to a public street.
Jordan More, the city’s policy analyst, said theoretically, a multifamily dwelling could have city bins and get free trash pickup. “If someone is willing to roll them out to the curb, yes, city trash collectors are taught: if you see a bin, pick it up because that is technically how the law is written now.”
The measure would amend the law to clarify what types of homes are eligible, allowing access to residential properties “with up to four residences on a single lot,” More confirmed.
That means some multifamily property owners might gain or lose eligibility for the trash service, though the city estimates the number of affected properties is very low.
If the ballot initiative passes, multifamily units that remain eligible would eventually be charged a fee by the city. However, if any properties are deemed ineligible, those properties would no longer be served by the city and would need to pay a private hauler, he said.
Who all will pick up the bill is still somewhat of a moving target.
The city doesn't know its precise customer base, and it doesn’t track customers or their bins because the law doesn't require it, More added.
Instead, the city uses public utility billing data to estimate that there are 285,000 potential customers for trash service. The utility data offers the “best guess as far as where they think they (customers) are,” More said. “They’re very similar-sized customer bases.”
If voters allow the city to charge a garbage fee, the city will conduct a study – expected to cost $1 million and take two years – to determine just how many customers it serves and where they are, More added.
The new fees would give the city the financial resources to create a new billing system to track its customers, said Charles Modica, the city’s independent budget analyst.
The city also could recover through trash fees the cost of providing organic waste recycling services, including yard and kitchen food waste, to all eligible residences by 2023, a service required by a new state law. Those program costs were included in the city’s total spending on garbage services for this year, which drove the city’s trash fee estimates Modica said that organic waste recycling likely would not have a big impact on trash fees later on.
Neighbors, advocates weigh in
The future of trash fees in San Diego may depend on a huge block of undecided voters making up their mind.
A recent poll commissioned by San Diego Union-Tribune and 10News asked likely voters whether they would support or oppose a change in law that would ensure “all city residents receive comparable trash and recycling services, by letting the city recover its cost of providing these services to eligible homes.”
In response, a significant block of voters – 41% – said they were unsure how they’d vote. Just 35% said they were supportive and 21% said they would oppose it.
But the opposition dramatically increased – to 45% of all respondents and 55% of single-family homeowners – when they were told single-family homes would no longer get the trash service for free if the ballot measure passes, a possibility the first survey questions did not make explicit.
Asked that question, support fell to 27% but undecided voters fell to 12% of those surveyed.
Sheree Myles,who lives in a duplex in the Swan Canyon area of City Heights, is not looking forward to getting charged for trash services. She says a new fee would be unfair since the person she rents from already pays property taxes that cover trash, and her rent helps cover those costs.
“Who wants to pay for something when it’s already free?” Myles said.
Just down the block, Dan Swenson, who owns a townhome, says a new fee is unfair because the city already has tax revenues to pay for the trash service.
“Everyone wants to do the right thing, and let's fund this and let's fund that and it's more expensive. But it shouldn't be on the back of homeowners to partner more with the city to get just general business done,” Swenson said.
While he will still be able to pay his bills and support his wife who has cancer if he is charged a new trash fee, some of his older-adult neighbors with disabilities might not be as fortunate.
If the new fees are too much of a financial burden for residents, Modica said that the city can cover costs of the fee for them. But no cost relief plan is included in the ballot measure.
Voters won’t get the full picture of how the ballot measure will affect them by reading the measure itself. It doesn’t explicitly say the city plans to charge residents a new fee, and it says the cost recovery would allow the city to offer “additional services … at no extra charge.”
Measure B ballot question for voters
“Shall the San Diego Municipal Code be amended so that all City residents receive comparable trash, recycling, and other solid waste management services, by allowing the City to recover its cost of providing these services to eligible residential properties, which could allow the City to provide additional services, such as weekly recycling, bulky item pickup, and curbside container replacement and delivery, at no extra charge?”
Some residents understand the impact on them if the ballot measure passes and say a trash fee down the line is well worth it..
“Everyone should pay their fair share of what we need to collect to take care of all of our trash,” Kathleen Hallahan, president of the East Village Residents Group, a community group for residents of the Downtown neighborhood, told inewsource. She added that the measure could also raise awareness of how much trash families produce and encourage recycling.
In a recent public forum, Elo-Rivera said San Diegans’ frustration with insufficient city services and infrastructure is a result of the city not generating as much revenue as it could.
“That is all a product of you all having been told a lie that we can just get by without paying our fair share,” said Elo-Rivera, who represents communities including Mt. Hope, City Heights and College Area.
Hong, the Taxpayers Association CEO who opposes charging homeowners for trash pickup, said he agrees that the People’s Ordinance is unfair to residents because while all San Diegans contribute to the city’s tax revenues, only some get the city’s free trash service. But, he says, Measure B is not the way to solve the equity problem.
Instead, Hong favors allowing more competition between private haulers and the city’s own waste management operators and a system that allows all residents to benefit from free trash pickup at least up to a certain amount. Customers who go over their trash production would be charged, according to Hong and the Association’s recommendation.
“Let the city compete, and let's see who actually does it for the least amount,” Hong told inewsource.
In a forum with Hong and the Union-Tribune, LaCava said Measure B will guarantee lower costs for residents. The city can only charge for the cost of providing the service. Meanwhile, private haulers can add profit and more into their fee structures, LaCava said.
“That competition doesn’t always play itself out the way that folks think,” he said.
Hong also doesn’t believe Measure B would be fair to many single-family homeowners south of Interstate 8.
“We're talking about seniors, we're talking about, you know, people in underserved communities,” he said. “I don't know how now charging them more for trash in addition to the property taxes that they already pay, the city is somehow gonna, the system more fair for them.”
Steven Kolbert, who owns a house in University Heights, said that he plans to vote “no” on the measure because the ballot’s language, which does not directly mention charging residents a new fee, “can be misleading.”
“I think it's written in such a way where they'll get more people to vote for it, without [voters] knowing what the real ramifications are,” Kolbert said. “It puts more onus on me to do more research and not just make a decision based on what you see on the ballot.”
This project was produced with financial support from the American Press Institute.