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City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera wants to axe a century-old city ordinance that allows free trash pickup for most single-family homes.

Elo-Rivera, who chairs the City Council’s environment committee, said at a Voice of San Diego member event Wednesday that he plans to have the committee take up the issue later this year and consider a ballot measure among other options to nix the law.

“We want to talk about this later this year and I’m serious, this needs to go,” said Elo-Rivera, who represents communities including City Heights and Talmadge. “We’re gonna to try to make that happen.”

A potential ballot measure and even a committee hearing on the topic would mark a significant shift for a policy that has survived countless calls from advocates, the San Diego County Grand Jury and others to repeal it because it shortchanges the city out of a charge that citizens elsewhere pay and creates inequities between renters and single-family homeowners – and even among single-family homeowners who pay and those who don’t.

The so-called People’s Ordinance hearkens back to 1919, when 85 percent of voters supported a measure mandating that the city collect trash from homes and allowed city leaders to levy fees for it. The city never implemented the latter charges, which meant the city must pick up trash at single-family homes without a special fee. In the mid-1980s, the ordinance was updated to bar free service for new apartments in condos.

That’s meant San Diegans who live in single-family homes generally get free trash service and those who don’t pay for trash service. It’s also meant the city doesn’t have funds other municipalities count on to pay for things like public safety and infrastructure.

The city’s independent budget analyst wrote in a memo last year that providing trash collection to single-family homes costs the city $36.3 million a year – and that was before a costly new organics recycling law set to take effect in January that’s projected to add millions more to the cost.

Earlier this year, the Council’s environment committee approved a work plan calling for a review of “the racial and socioeconomic disparities the ordinance leads to and options for amending the ordinance, to include a possible 2022 ballot measure.”

The work plan suggested the review would occur by this September.

The progressive-leaning Center on Policy Initiatives is among the groups that have for years railed against the People’s Ordinance.

At Wednesday’s VOSD event, Executive Director Kyra Greene argued the city should make changes to pull in revenues that support its needs. She also said the ordinance offers the city an opportunity to weigh whether its policies are equitable.

“The trash ordinance (…) is a prime example of providing a tax cut or fee cut to people who are the most advantaged in the system,” Greene said. “I mean, I know it’s hard to be a homeowner in this region. It’s tough. It’s expensive, but if you have the ability to do that, to be the people also not having to pay a fee that folks who live in apartments do pay as part of their rent is an example of a city that hasn’t thought about equity in its approaches.”

Elo-Rivera agreed.

“That’s 35 or $40 million every year that we are subsidizing for folks who are much better positioned to absorb that cost than those who don’t,” Elo-Rivera said. “It’s wild, and there’s neighborhoods where you can, you know, you walk down the street and you see a nice single-family home next to an apartment building. And you say, ‘Which one of those families gets free trash pickup?’ It’s not the one who needs it.”

But City Councilman Chris Cate, a Republican who also serves on the environment committee, said Wednesday he would “probably not” support a repeal of the People’s Ordinance, underscoring the resistance any repeal movement is likely to face from folks like Cate who are naturally resistant to tax or fee hikes.

Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer avoided the issue even after allies at the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, where Cate once worked, voted in 2016 to recommend removing or amending the People’s Ordinance.

Mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, has often spoken of the city’s structural budget issues but has thus far not specified whether he would support a repeal of the People’s Ordinance.

When the city was facing devastating budget deficits earlier this year as a result of COVID-19 closures, interim COO Jay Goldstone said during a virtual meeting of the National Albondigas Political Society that the People’s Ordinance was among the issues on the table as the city looked at its budget challenges. He noted that other cities he’d worked for charged all residents for trash pick-up.

City spokeswoman Nicole Darling later clarified that Goldstone’s response was “made to provide a more long-term picture” rather than a proposal for the 2022 budget process.

Elo-Rivera said Thursday he is prepared to start a fight he believes is necessary to help address structural budget gaps.

“Three separate county grand juries have said it must go, but the city has yet to take action,” Elo-Rivera wrote in a statement. “I would be negligent in my duties as the environment committee chair to not investigate alternatives to what has resulted in a drain on the city’s general fund, an unfair refuse collection system and an obstacle to achieving our waste diversion and recycling goals.”

Correction: This post has been updated to more accurately describe the People’s Ordinance. The city picks up trash without a special fee for most single-family homes. Most multi-family units must pay fees to private haulers to come take their trash.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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