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Free Trash Collection Could End for San Diego City Residents

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GLORIA PENNER (Host): This week, the San Diego City Council responded to a county grand jury report calling for residents of the city to pay a fee for trash collection. Shrinking revenues across the state are focusing attention on possible new income sources, like trash pick-up fees. But if you happen to live in one of the 17 other cities in the county where trash collection fees are the norm, you might be wondering why San Diego city residents don't pay for trash collection. And that's a story that goes back 90 years. KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr is here to help explain it. Welcome back, Katie. Alright, tell us what the 1919 law is that's known as the "People's Ordinance." KATIE ORR (Reporter): Well basically that's a law that prohibits San Diego for charging for trash collection if you can get your trash to a public street in a city approved bin. They started it in 1919 because a private company was handling trash collection and selling it to hog farmers and basically it was viewed as profiteering and they didn't want that to happen anymore. The city wanted the money, so the enacted the ordinance. PENNER: So along comes our county grand jury, recently, and says "OK it's time to put an end to that law and it's time to start charging for trash collection", what reason did the county grand jury give? ORR: Well, they said that the ordinance as it is now is unfair. In the '80s it was amended so that the city could start charging some businesses and people who lived in multi-family units like large apartment complexes, they didn't offer them trash collection anymore, so those people had to pay for private service. So, you have some people who live in single-family homes in regular neighborhoods who get it for free and then people living in apartment complexes or businesses who have to pay for trash collection. PENNER: When, we talk about paying, that means that the City of San Diego is actually paying for trash collection for most of the residences. How much does it cost the city? ORR: Well, it's estimated, it's about 305,000 customers get this service for free and it costs the city, the most common figure is $54 million but there are some councilmembers who argue it could be as high as $65 million if you figure in the cost of administration and the bins. So, millions of dollars. PENNER: Yeah, that's a significant portion of our general fund. Then of course it had to go to the San Diego City Council to make some decision on that grand jury report. What did they decide? ORR: Well they basically decided to agree to disagree. There really isn't a consensus. the councilmembers said that it comes down to a fundamental difference in their belief systems. Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria believe the ordinance is unfair, but they are not coming out and saying that it should be repealed. It's kind of the third rail of San Diego politics, no one will come out and say "we have to overturn it". PENNER: Because? ORR: Well because people would probably vote it down. No one wants to pay for a service that they're getting for free right now, so none of the politicians want to be the one to advocate for that because it will fail. And then Kevin Faulkner, Carl Demaio, and Sherri Lightner say they don't believe the ordinance is inequitable and they believe that these issues can be dealt with without repealing the ordinance. PENNER: So when you talk about it not reaching a consensus, did they really expect that all of the members of the City Council were going to agree on what to do? ORR: I don't think they did. They had to legally send something back to the grand jury. They had to get it back by August 14. They are in recess in August, so they had to get it done now. It's the law, they had to formulate some kind of response. So in the end they ended up sending up a variety of opinions with a cover letter explaining that they couldn't reach a consensus. PENNER: So this is the City of San Diego. We have a wide range of other cities and unincorporated areas where they do pay for trash collection. Is it expensive? What do they pay? ORR: The fees range from about $14 to $23 for residential customers. PENNER: A month? ORR: A month, yes. It's different for businesses those are higher fees, but citizens pay between $14 and $23 a month. PENNER: Quite a difference between that and the City of San Diego. What's next? ORR: Well, they will send their report to the grand jury, but really they probably won't take much action. They said if the people want to overturn this ordinance than it's up to the people to get a ballot initiative going and take a vote on it. I wouldn't expect the council to do much on it if they're not required too. PENNER: Thank you very much, Katie Orr. Joining me now to talk about how trash collection is paid for in the City of San Diego is Ricky Young, he's the local government editor with the San Diego Union-Tribune and Miriam Raftery, editor of East County Magazine, welcome to you both. Let's start with you Ricky. Has the People's Ordinance outlived its purpose? RICKY YOUNG (San Diego Union-Tribune): There are certainly constituencies that say that the grand jury, as Katie talked about, has said that the city's independent budget analyst has said that the problem in San Diego is that they have more expenses than they have revenue and this is an ongoing and chronic problem and a lot of people point to the trash fee or tax as a way to deal with that. PENNER: But what's at the heart of the issue? Is it that San Diego city residents simply don't want to pay for city services? YOUNG: It's what you might call an entitlement, which is something people get used to and then they don't want to let go of and you know, once you have free trash pick-up I don't think you would want to pay for it, and I think that's a natural tendency. PENNER: Alright, so Miriam, as someone who works outside and works outside of the City of San Diego, what do you make of the argument that San Diego city residents already pay for tax collection by paying property taxes. MIRIAM RAFTERY (East County Magazine): Well, I was actually very surprised to hear about that, because out in East County, in our cities, we all pay for trash collection, an extra fee, and no one has ever thought anything of it, so I think that voters in San Diego have been getting an awfully good deal for an awfully long time out there. PENNER: Right, but politicians haven't done anything about it either. Ricky, the City Council basically agreed to do nothing about this. Does that show a lack of leadership or is the council really saying, "alright, we're going to get the people of San Diego to lead us. YOUNG: Well, that's been the mayor's line, that when the people come to him and say that they want this, he will show leadership on it. I think that that's unlikely to happen. And the council, I think that each of them is responding to their constituencies on the subject, the Republicans in particular, saying that the city needs to reform more of its pension and pay practices before asking the residents for more money. The Democrats more inclined to deal with the fairness issue about who gets charged and who doesn't and with the revenue issue in terms of a fee or a tax for trash pick up. PENNER: I guess what it comes down to, Miriam, is the question of politicians. Are they simply reluctant to take steps that are considered risky and that might interfere with their political ambitions? RAFTERY: Well absolutely, Republicans in particular, but everyone in this climate, if you come out and you publicly favor a tax increase, it can be a political death knell in a lot of circles. That said, we have seen it happen in East County. We had some mayors, Republican mayors actually and a school bond measure and sales tax measures that did pass because there were political leaders that got out and explained and made the case that we're going to have public safety cuts or hazards in our schools if we don't pass these things. PENNER: And were they necessarily Republicans or Democrats? RAFTERY: Actually, in the areas out there, it was all Republicans, there were no elected officials that were Democrats, with one exception I guess, but primarily Republicans.