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Taxpayers Group: Drop the Free (for Some) City Trash Law

The 1919 People's Ordinance is unique among California cities and has required the city of San Diego to provide trash pickup to single-family homes without charging a special fee. Residents in apartments, condos and private streets have to pay private contractors. In a rather surprising stand, the Taxpayers Association has recommended changing or removing the law, which would require a vote.

The board of directors of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association voted to recommend removing or amending the People’s Ordinance — a unique law embedded in the City Charter that mandates the city pick up trash on city streets.

Since 1986, that has meant that the city collects trash from single-family homes but not from apartment or condo buildings or private streets and gated communities. Those multi-family units have had to contract with private companies to have their trash hauled away.

Charging single-family homeowners a fee or cutting off their city trash service and letting them contract on their own with private companies has been on the agenda of many organizations for years. But since the changes in 1986, it has never gotten traction.

The Taxpayers Association move could be the first in a series of interesting steps that might occur before the 2016 vote. Charging for trash pickup or saving the money the city spends on it could help pay for major infrastructure investments.

For as long as I’ve been a reporter here, there have been two distinct attacks on the People’s Ordinance: 1) it created inequity between single-family homeowners who don’t pay a fee and 2) unlike other area cities, San Diego was paying for trash pickup out of its general fund, leaving public safety and infrastructure short-changed while subsidizing the city’s most well-off residents.

“We see the People’s Ordinance as something that creates a subsidy. There’s never been a more appropriate time to remedy a situation that causes inequity,” said Mark Leslie, CEO of the Taxpayers Association. It was his 47-member board that recommended a change.

Progressive and city workers union leaders have pushed for a change for years. In this post from 2009, Murtaza Baxamusa made the case that the city should allow apartment dwellers to choose to have the city come for their trash.

Almost half of San Diegans are renters. Why is the city excluding multifamily units from benefiting from the award-winning trash service that single-family units receive? If condos and apartments had the option of city-provided trash pickup, this would competitively drive down the cost of commercial pickup, which would in turn lower rents and homeowner association fees.

But a change could go a completely different way. If voters remove or amend the People’s Ordinance, the City Council could get the city out of the trash business entirely and privatize the whole system.

A move like that might free up $47 million a year the city could use on other priorities but it would meet stiff resistance, particularly from the blue-collar AFSCME Local 127 union, which includes trash services personnel.

In 2011, Randy Dotinga wrote a history of the People’s Ordinance. It passed overwhelmingly in 1919 but was overshadowed by a bitter race for mayor. And Liam Dillon did a San Diego Explained episode with NBC on the issue. Bonus: You get to see Dillon pallin’ around with pigs.

About 60 percent of San Diego residents live in single-family homes and get the city’s service for trash pickup. About 40 percent live in the apartments and other multi-family units that require them to contract with a provider and pay the fee.

I asked Leslie if this was the beginning of an effort to find the money Councilman Mark Kersey will need for his promised infrastructure megabond, an effort to comprehensively address a multibillion-dollar backlog of needs for city buildings, streets, parks and other facilities.

“I wouldn’t say it’s in preparation for what Mark’s doing,” Leslie said. “We’re going to work together to come up with a rec of how to more appropriately handle trash collection.”

He said the point now was just to get people talking about the need to change the People’s Ordinance. And he said it could very well be on the 2016 ballot. Kersey has not committed to proposing a tax increase for his plan. Councilman Todd Gloria has supported that, and Councilwoman Lorie Zapf has said she might support letting voters decide whether they want to pay more for a major infrastructure plan.

As a line the City Charter, the People’s Ordinance can only be amended by a vote of the people. Council President Sherri Lightner is currently running a Charter Review Committee to suggest changes but this one hasn’t come up yet.

April Boling, a member of the Taxpayers Association board of directors, wouldn’t tell me how she voted. But she’s long been annoyed by suggestions that single-family homeowners don’t pay for their trash collection. They pay in property taxes.

“But it’s not clear to me why the city of San Diego is in the trash pickup business, period. There are a lot of other discussions we could have rather than start with the notion that the city must do trash collection and we should figure out how much to charge for it,” she said.

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