San Diegan voters are poised to dump a century-old law requiring the city to pick up the check for trash collection at most single-family homes.
Voters approved Measure B by the narrowest of margins – it is leading as of Thursday night by just 2,890 votes out of the 398,000 votes cast. Its passage now allows the city to charge residents a fee to cover what it already spends collecting trash, freeing up about $50 million to be spent on other priorities in the city’s annual budget cycle.
It also puts an end to an idiosyncratic San Diego policy long seen as a third rail of local politics. That change reflects a political realignment evident in the city’s 9-0 Democratic City Council majority and the passage of a measure removing Midway from the coastal height limit, a change to a 50-year-old law that was similarly considered untouchable.
The city of San Diego can now study and then impose a special fee for trash pick-up. That was necessary because a law passed in 1919 and then reinforced by voters in the 1980s restricted the city from requiring most single-family homeowners with access to a city street to pay for waste collection, including recycling. Residents of other homes – largely those who lived in apartments – already had to pay for trash pickup, though they paid private companies, not the city, to haul their trash away.
San Diego is the only city in California where residents were entitled to trash service without paying a direct fee. In 2021, San Diego City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera, who represents District 9, announced he’d take on undoing the century-old law as council president. He directed government budget analysts to report back on how much it’s costing the city to provide certain citizens a no-cost service. Advocates for repealing the People’s Ordinance and county grand juries asked that same question in the past, estimating waste collection cost the city more than $260 million over the previous five fiscal years.
It’s a cost that’s quickly rising since the state mandated Californians recycle their food waste this year. That law, SB 1383, aims to eliminate planet-warming methane gas leaking from landfills and fueling climate change. But the mandate added an entirely new and expensive waste stream to the city tab. The Environmental Services Department increased its claim on the city’s general fund by 65 percent from a year ago to purchase dozens of new waste collection trucks, green waste bins and to prep the Miramar Landfill for an $85 million composting facility.
With the passage of Measure B, the city can now charge a fee to recover the cost of that service, too.
Just like with any new fee imposed by the government, the city has to do what’s called a cost-of-service study. The results are the government’s justification for the price of a new fee to provide that service.
“It’s really easy to frame this as a new tax,” said Mikey Knab, policy director at Climate Action Campaign which supported Measure B. “It’s difficult when folks feel they contributed in some way to deserve that service from their local government that’s now telling them it’s been free the whole time – that doesn’t land well – (People’s Ordinance) has been around so long that it’s a surprise to people.”
Michael Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, the city’s white-collar union and the primary supporter of Measure B, said getting voters to agree to pay for anything this election cycle was an uphill battle, given economic concerns amid record inflation.
“Obviously nobody wants to pay something if they already get it for free, but (people) also recognize the indefensibleness of disparity in who gets the benefit of the People’s Ordinance and the consequences that flow from that,” Zucchet said.
The success of undoing the People’s Ordinance, to some, reflects the recent shift from conservative old San Diego politics to liberal, Democrat-dominated local governments in San Diego. Or, in non-partisan terms, it suggests a change from the dominance that single-family homeowners have enjoyed in San Diego since the People’s Ordinance passed in the 20th Century.
“A problem is a problem regardless of the time that we’re in,” Elo Rivera said. “We should at least consider what we need to do to address it and not dismiss it outright because it seems like not a good time.”