San Diego plan to end “free” trash pick up at some homes challenged
The decision by Mayor Jerry Sanders to cut off free trash collection for about 14,200 San Diego households by canceling deals struck decades ago has angered residents who say they are being discriminated against because of where they live.
The mayor plans to halt trash pickup on private streets throughout the city on July 1, leaving dozens of homeowners associations and mobile-home parks scrambling to convince city leaders to reverse the decision. If unsuccessful, they’ll need to find a private hauler to collect their trash for about $20 a month per residence.
The move — announced by Sanders in December as part of a plan to save more than $1.2 million annually — didn’t hit home for affected residents until the past couple weeks when notices began circulating and many realized they would lose service. Now a loose coalition of homeowners associations is amassing to challenge the mayor’s decision and possibly sue the city if it follows through.
“We pay the same taxes as someone who’s a block away on a public street,” said Clark Straw, 64, a retired computer executive who lives on a private street in La Jolla. “We are paying the taxes for (trash pickup) through our sales tax and property tax ... and we should either get a refund or a credit on our taxes or we shouldn’t be discriminated against as a group.”
Free trash collection has been a hallmark of living in San Diego for more than 90 years although “free” is a bit of a misnomer. The city’s $34 million in trash-hauling costs are funded by property and sales taxes, which are generated from residents and businesses. What the city doesn’t do is recover trash costs by specifically billing for the service as many other municipalities do.
San Diego has been prohibited from charging residents for trash collection on public streets since 1919 when voters approved The People’s Ordinance after discovering the city was charging for pickup and then selling the refuse for a profit to a Los Angeles pig farmer.
As it stands, not everyone gets free trash pickup. Only about 60 percent of the city’s 510,000 residences receive the service. The rest pay private haulers. That includes mainly apartment and condominium complexes as well as homes built on private streets over the past 25 years.
At issue now is the city’s decision to expand free service on a case-by-case basis in the 1960s to cover private streets within residential developments as long as the communities signed agreements not to hold the city liable for damage to the streets. Voters put a halt to that practice in 1986 but about 100 previous deals were kept in place.
Sanders, who is trying to close a $56.7 million deficit in the city’s $1.1 billion operating budget, now wants to scrap those deals because the city isn’t required to provide trash pickup on private streets. A legal opinion from the City Attorney’s Office said he has sole authority to cancel the deals as long as he gives a week’s notice; Sanders opted for a six-month notification period.
“While we certainly understand these residents’ disappointment, the bottom line is that the money we save on our trash expenses will be used to protect the city’s most vital services, including police and firefighting,” Sanders said in a statement. “I would point out that these residents live on private streets, meaning the city has been picking up their trash for decades even though it has had no obligation to do so.”
Councilman Carl DeMaio, whose district will see more than 3,500 households lose service, has organized a town-hall meeting in April to rally support to stop the mayor’s plan. He called the move a Band-Aid that does little to solve the city’s fiscal crisis and only serves to raid the pocketbooks of working families.
“I’m trying to ascertain whether we have the votes (on the City Council) to turn this around and the only way we’re going to be able to accomplish that is if the public speaks up loud and clear,” he said. “Politicians will see the light when they feel the heat.”
Councilman David Alvarez, whose district has about 1,400 residences that will lose service, said he’s concerned about senior citizens in mobile-home parks that will be affected.
“For people who are living on fixed incomes already, right now it’s tough for them, and it’s just going to get a little bit tougher if we add another cost,” he said. Alvarez heads the city’s Natural Resources and Culture committee which will hold a hearing on the issue Wednesday.
The City Council doesn’t have the authority to stop Sanders, but it may be able to fashion a separate agreement that would leave service intact for the 14,200 households. If that happens, Sanders has said the council will need to cut from elsewhere in the budget to make it work.
Tom Gatlin, an attorney who represents several affected homeowners associations, said he is hopeful the council will step in and do the right thing so a lawsuit won’t be necessary.
“They’ve already paid for the service and what difference does private streets versus public streets make,” he said. “If they’ve paid for the service, why shouldn’t they receive the service.”
Halting trash pickup for those residences will save the city $675,000 annually, but the mayor also plans to cut off service to about 4,600 businesses so the total savings tops $1.2 million. There’s been no major opposition from the business community because the city long ago placed a cap on how much trash it collects from them and many already pay for service from the private sector.