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The city of San Diego faces the dual crisis of severe budget cuts and a growing demand to increase spending on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
While attention has rightly been on the SDPD budget, there are other, more mundane, items that need further scrutiny – one in particular is waste collection. The current waste policies are a drain on general funds, are unequipped to meet the city’s zero waste goals and are an unfair burden on those who are excluded.
If you live in an apartment complex or condo, you most likely pay twice for waste collection. Under current policy, you pay first for private waste collection (typically through the price of rent or HOA) but you also contribute to “free” waste collection for all single-family homes through taxes. San Diego is the only city in the region and one of three with populations over 7,000 in the state that does not charge for waste collection. The reason? San Diego voters passed a ballot measure called the People’s Ordinance in 1919, which codified free waste collection in the City Charter at a time when trash was a valuable resource for hog farmers. This antiquated provision costs the city around $34 million annually.
While there are wealthy condo owners excluded from the service and some low-income receive free collection, a law granting free trash to single-family homes is largely a subsidy for homeowners. As household trash has increased with more people cooking at home due to COVID-19, this subsidy has grown to become an untenable burden on the city budget.
The People’s Ordinance has been third rail politics in San Diego for decades, but we think that the time is right for the city to have an honest discussion with residents about who bears the burden of free trash and what the ramifications are of increasing waste in landfills.
Through a graduate course at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UCSD, we constructed a model for two policies the city should consider as alternative financing schemes for trash collection: a traditional flat fee and a pay-as-you-throw, or PAYT, model. These policies are the norm for most cities and represent a more equitable distribution of waste collection. When we modeled them for San Diego, we found that the additional revenues generated through these policies would allow the city to: cover the costs of providing weekly collection services and open up the general fund for more inclusive community spending; dramatically increase the amount of waste diverted from landfills through improved recycling and composting; and equitably distribute the costs of waste services. Current waste diversion rates along with estimated growth rates (based on SANDAG data), puts single-family homes on track to achieve only 29 percent waste diversion by 2040. This is well below the goal of “Zero Waste” or more than 90 percent diversion by 2040. In contrast, we estimate that a flat tax on residents would lead to 53 percent diversion, and a PAYT policy would lead to 56 percent by 2040. PAYT has the additional advantage of affecting behavior by connecting how much a resident throws away with the amount paid for waste collection, so that residents face a higher price for producing more waste.
In 2009, a grand jury ruled that the city should repeal the People’s Ordinance on equity grounds “because it provides no-fee trash collection and disposal to some citizens and requires other citizens to pay for the service.” The 2019 Climate Equity Index Report found that cost burdens of basic needs, including energy, transportation and housing, are much higher in communities with a higher proportion of people of color.
Those with the least in San Diego are being asked to contribute the highest share of their income for basic needs. The city needs to decide if spending $34 million a year to subsidize a program that is counterproductive to its zero waste plan and primarily benefits single-family homes is the proper distribution of increasingly scarce resources.
While the People’s Ordinance has long been seen as untouchable because of the political power of homeowners, a paradigm shift is occurring where city residents are taking a closer look at city budgets as a tool for increased equity. With leadership in our communities and at City Hall, we can begin to re-examine the mundane but foundational issues of how we pay for city services, and who benefits. Eliminating free waste allows for a dedicated revenue stream, frees up general funds for inclusive community spending, aligns with the city’s zero waste goals, and equitably distributes the costs of essential city services.
If you would like to look at the model we created, we made it publicly available here.
Marianna Garcia, Elise Hanson, Aurora Livingston, Joe Bettles and Jack Christensen are all master of public policy students at the University of California, San Diego.