San Diego City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera wants to finally nix a costly century-old ordinance that provides free trash pickup for many homeowners.
Elo-Rivera is set to lead a Thursday committee review of an Independent Budget Analyst report estimating that the policy long decried by advocates and county grand juries has cost the city more than $260 million over the last five fiscal years, including more than $30 million annually from the fund that pays for police and libraries.
The so-called People’s Ordinance dates back to 1919, when voters approved 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, which meant the city must pick up trash from homes and complexes with direct access to city streets. In the mid-1980s, the ordinance was updated to bar the free service for new apartments and condos.
That’s meant San Diegans who have direct street access — many single-family homeowners — generally get free trash service. It’s also meant the city doesn’t have funds that other municipalities count on to pay for things like public safety and infrastructure.
Elo-Rivera asked city budget analysts to take a deep dive into the impacts of the policy after revealing that he planned to have the City Council Environment Committee, which he leads, take up the issue and consider a ballot measure to axe the law.
“It’s an unfair system that results in nobody getting the level of service that they want and the whole city not getting the world-class services that they deserve,” Elo-Rivera said Friday.
Here’s what else Elo-Rivera had to say about the big projections in the new report and his next steps. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The biggest takeaway I had from the report is that there’s a really large price tag that’s associated with the People’s Ordinance. The free trash pickup that’s being provided only to some residents over the last five fiscal years has cost the city more than $260 million, and then it’s projected to cost even more — $360 million — over the next five fiscal years. That’s a lot of money. The totals grow in part due to a new state law that brings some new organics recycling requirements that the city has to pay for. What do you make of those large totals?
Those are big numbers, and we can’t lose sight of that. But when I think about the city’s money, I think about who could benefit and what we could do if that were to be utilized in a different way. There’s a lot that we could do. First and foremost, we could provide a world-class service with respect to trash and recycling pickup. We could improve service. There’s a lot more as well. I think about our budget conversations and our frustrations around the structural budget problems that we have. And part of that is, in my opinion, the lack of revenue that we have in comparison to what we should be collecting as a city of our size. So that is where my mind goes, in terms of what we can do with that, and more importantly, who would benefit from that? All residents by having access to world-class services with respect to trash and recycling collection, but also communities that could really benefit from the city having a little bit more bandwidth when it comes to the budgeting.
The IBA report called out things the city could fund like increased library or park services, maybe create some additional capital for capital projects. Were there specific things that you had in mind if the city suddenly didn’t have this projected $45 million-plus cost to the general fund over the next five years, which may be more than $70 million a year if you factor in other funds? Where would you want to put that money first?
That’s not for me to decide on my own. Each budget cycle, we are presented with the needs and desires of the community, the must do’s that a city has and then the pot of money that we have to do that work. Before I start to decide which of those ways we should use that pot of money, I want to make sure that the pot of money is sufficient to support the needs and desires of our community.
The report noted that the current system doesn’t allow for an individualized billing system or a service structure that might incentivize recycling or more of the organics processing that the city is supposed to be doing now per the new state law. Do you have any ideas on how the trash fee could incentivize more progress on some of the cities related goals?
To start, let’s name the problem, which is that we have a set of rules that were put into place over 100 years ago. The world has changed a lot since then. San Diego has changed a lot since then. And if we zoom out and we’re not specifically looking at trash or refuse collection, if I were to say that, “Hey, we’re currently operating under a set of rules that were created 100 years ago, that ties our hands to bring our current system up to date, to take advantage of advances in technology,” I think most folks would say let’s change those rules so we can operate in the 21st century. What we’re trying to do, from a very basic level, is untie the hands of the city so we can be more creative because right now we’re lacking in even the ability to be creative about how we assess those fees, the investments that we can make in trash collection recycling.
So, there’s that initial part of just wanting to allow some of our experts to be a little bit more creative there, but certainly anything that we can do to increase the possibility of us being more sustainable as a city, making this be an area we can really lean into with respect to our climate action goals. Those are benefits and things that I would like to see. Some of it is in that sustainability area. There’s other things as well — being able to offer free bulk or large item pickup, which would, we think, have a positive impact on the illegal dumping that occurs. There’s environmental and community consequences for that. There’s a lot that we can do, but right now we’re locked back in a time when horse and buggies were still rolling around San Diego streets.
You are not the first person to suggest that the People’s Ordinance needs to go. There have been grand juries over the years, lots of different advocacy groups. The IBA’s office has suggested in many reports that the city should take a look at this, but it hasn’t happened yet. If the city wanted to do this, first there would need to be a public vote. Then there would be a cost-of-service study and a council vote. What do you make of your chances and what are your next steps here?
So definitely not the first to talk about this. I think it’s important to note that as far as we’ve seen, every time an independent analysis of the People’s Ordinance has been done, the conclusion is the same: this needs to change. In terms of our chances of actually getting it done this time, this week’s Environment Committee meeting is the first formal step in this new council considering that and having the conversation of the pros and cons, of us being able to think about, are there actual reasons why we shouldn’t do this or are there things that we want to avoid if we do do it, just to make sure that it works in the way that we intended to.
I’m optimistic, though. I try to listen carefully when my council colleagues are speaking and some of them have talked about their frustrations with the status quo. Others have talked about their frustrations with the lack of revenue the city brings in. We know that we heard from constituents when Voice of San Diego first ran the story back in the spring on this, folks reached out and said, “I’m a homeowner and you’re right. This does need to change. I also know folks are often frustrated with the current service they get and that we are not the only council office who hears complaints and frustrations about not having more regular service, the frustration of having to pay for a new bin, of having to go down and get a new bin.
All of those things are not exclusive to our office, and I think create a positive momentum for us to really seriously consider this and potentially do it.
So when you bring that up, some people start to fear the possibility of lots of increased fees. This is a tough time. There’s a lot of economic concern. How do you balance that when you’re thinking about this ordinance, when you know there are communities that benefit from this? The IBA’s office noted there are a large number of single-family homes, for example, in City Council District 4 (which covers southeastern San Diego and, historically, hasn’t seen the same level of investments).
Any time a fee is considered we have to take into account what the impact will be and who it will be felt most by, and I’m super empathetic to that. But there’s a lot of hoops to jump through in the state of California before you just go drop a fee on someone. There’s a lot of checks in place to ensure that we’re not just making numbers up, that the fee is set based on the service that’s provided. I also think that we have a very thoughtful and caring council and mayor who will be taking into account equity whenever we can, as often as possible to ensure that as we’re righting the ship when it comes to revenue, we aren’t having the unintended consequence of imposing negative impacts on communities that can’t afford to bear that weight.
If you were to move forward, what would you recommend the city do to take a closer look at that equity piece?
I think that the thing that we could really lean into would be community engagement, from having direct conversations with community members — what their fears are, what their hopes are and how, if we were to do this, we move forward in a way that is most beneficial to the most people, especially those who are struggling the most. As with pretty much everything we do, we will learn best by speaking directly to the folks who are in our communities.
The report did take a look at other California cities and at Phoenix to see what they are charging. The typical charges were somewhere from just under $25 a month to just over $140 a month. What did you make of what the IBA’s office found about how those fees were structured and how much they were?
The first thing is, we don’t charge and everybody else does. That jumps out, right? I’ll just say, anecdotally, that the times that this has come up in conversation with folks who don’t live in San Diego, their eyes bulge out of their head, they’re like, “Wait, you don’t charge for trash pickup?”
In fact, some people, even in San Diego, when they realize that they’re not being charged for trash pickup, they can’t believe it and it seems almost absurd to them that there wouldn’t be a fee for that.
In terms of what the IBA put forward, to me that demonstrates that there’s a lot of different paths for us to take. There’s a lot of options from the quantity of pickups to the overall breadth of services that are offered.
So you’ve got this big meeting coming up. What’s going to happen there and what should folks be watching for next in terms of your action on the People’s Ordinance?
We have a really good committee that asks really good questions. I think it’s a good cross section of the council as well in terms of representing different neighborhoods. We’ve got the coastal area represented, we’ve got south of the 8 represented and City Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert and Chris Cate providing their perspective as well. I think there will be a really interesting conversation and there will be some good questions asked. I’m curious to hear some of the folks who call in and express their thoughts on how this may or may not be beneficial to the community. We’ll be able to dig in and ask more specific questions of the idea as well.
I don’t want to get ahead of my colleagues in terms of what their position is on this because that’s not for me to determine. I think that what that conversation looks like can help inform next steps. We are confident that that after hearing from constituents, that after having talked to a lot of folks about this, but also just about the general state of the city, that folks would see the benefit of being able to bring our trash and recycling services up to the level that they want, that they’ll recognize how hamstrung the city is in being able to do that, and the additional things that we lose out on as result of existing within this currently antiquated structure.
The other thing that I think will be interesting to know at least is if there are some free riders who really exploit the current system. And I think that when we get deeper into this conversation, we’ll be able to hear a little bit more about that. There was a lot of frustration with Airbnb’s and other short-term rentals and the fact that, as it currently stands, the city sees no legal avenue to charge those who are renting their homes as short-term vacation rentals for trash pickup. The mini dorms that are so controversial in the College Area, they also get to benefit from this despite living in a very different way than their neighbors and having a very different impact in terms of waste. I think as a community gets to learn more, not just about the benefits, but also about those who are exploiting the status quo, there will be even more energy behind seeing this change.
Is there anything else on this topic that you’d like to add, or anything that stuck out to you that I didn’t ask about?
The current system is just unfair. In 2021, we do a lot more of that analysis around equity or fairness. But I think it’s important to note when you go back and look at those grand jury reports from quite a while ago, they talk about the unfairness, and this is the County of San Diego’s grand jury in the beginning part of this century. I doubt many of those folks would have considered themselves woke at the time and they could clearly see how unfair the status quo is. So that part is obviously super important to our office and it stands out to anyone who digs into this with any sort of detail, that right now it’s a very, very unfair system and it’s an unfair system that results in nobody getting the level of service that they want and the whole city not getting the world-class services that they deserve.
In the main, I support this policy change and advocated for this 5 years ago when a D2 candidate for SDCC. The devil is in the details, however. Which homeowners would be exempt for low income and senior status? Maybe a graduated fee scale? My greatest fear is the squandering of the added revenue. Lord knows that added revenue sources are as rare as hen’s teeth.
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