San Diegans from the 1910s have a lot of weirdness to answer for. First, city leaders illegally and violently cracked down on free speech in downtown. Then they banned the baring of ankles and elbows at La Jolla beaches and outlawed sex outside of marriage.
Times have changed. Just drop by Black’s Beach on a summer’s day or the Gaslamp Quarter on a Saturday night. But local voters did make a lasting impression: In 1919, they passed the People’s Ordinance, which required the city to pick up the trash. In recent decades, this law has become a major headache for San Diego’s politicians and bean counters as the city continues to be stuck with a big bill for garbage collection. On Election Day, voters will vote on Measure B and decide whether to let the city stick everyone with the trash tab.
So should we blame long-dead citizens for our current system, which generally allows single family homes to avoid trash fees while forcing apartment and condo complexes to pay them? If anything, it’s the voters of the eighties – the 1980s – who threw a wrench in the works and created the current system.
The problem in 1919 had to do with hungry pigs. Back then, the city stayed out of the garbage business, and a private company charged locals to haul away their trash. The company then sold the rotting refuse to hog farms in Los Angeles.
Locals believed this double-dipping stunk to high heaven, and passed the People’s Ordinance – requiring the city to handle garbage collection – by 85 percent to 15 percent. (About 14,300 people voted.) The ballot measure got scant attention in an election dominated by a mudslinging-filled campaign for mayor, a fuss over the construction of an Old Town bridge and nasty school board politics.
The ordinance allowed the city to collect fees, but the city never did. Then, in 1981, voters declared that residential trash collection would remain free, although there could be fees for industrial and commercial waste. In 1986, voters weighed in again and required fees for newly built condos and apartments. Voters also updated the ordinance to remove language requiring the separation of garbage, defined as “table refuse, night soil, swill and the entrails of butchered animals.”
What’s night soil? You don’t want to know.
The 1986 voter decision turned San Diego into two cities. There are those who get trash pickup at home at no extra cost beyond their typical tax bill, and those who have to also pay a private fee for trash pickup. Call it a case of reverse double-dipping.
Even with many apartments and condos out of the picture, the city’s independent budget analyst estimated in 2021 that the city was paying up to $71 million a year to deal with trash instead of sticking residents with the bill.
Now, some voices are calling for a change – and a charge. The City Council likes the idea of doing something else with $71 million – which is more than the city spends on libraries – and it voted 7-to-2 to put Measure B on the ballot. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board is calling for a no vote, even though it supported the idea of dumping the People’s Ordinance as recently as… last year.
So how much might residents need to pay if we’re all charged for trash service? Other big cities in the state charge $16-$36 a month. Not a ton, but certainly not pig feed either.