SAN DIEGO —
Environmental groups and labor unions expressed strong support Thursday for repealing San Diego’s law guaranteeing free trash pickup to single-family homes, calling it outdated, unfair and a barrier to boosting recycling rates.
Those groups lobbied for a ballot measure to repeal the law, called the People’s Ordinance, during a meeting of the City Council’s Environment Committee.
A majority of the panel said they support further analysis that could lead to such a public vote.
The law, which dates back to 1919, provides free trash pickup for people living in single-family homes, but businesses and people in most condos and apartments in the city must pay private haulers to pick up their trash.
Supporters said the law uses taxpayer money to help one group over another while preventing the city from enacting “pay as you throw” programs that feature discounts for producing less trash.
They also note that the costs of the program, which has been as high as $72 million a year, have been steadily rising and are expected to increase more rapidly with new state mandates on organic recycling.
Critics of repealing the law said such a move would be divisive and it would eliminate a benefit bestowed on current single-family residents by the city’s forefathers.
In addition, they said levying a new monthly charge of roughly $35 on low-income families living in single-family homes could worsen economic inequality in the city.
Labor leaders said repealing the law is overdue for many reasons, but primarily the unfairness and the cost.
“This is the only major service provided by the general fund that actually confers sort of an exclusive benefit only to a certain number of citizens,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the largest labor union representing city employees. “We’re the only jurisdiction on God’s green Earth that doesn’t charge to recover the cost of this service.”
Jesse Connor, president of the city’s firefighters labor union, said the money San Diego would save by no longer paying to provide free trash pick-up could be used to boost fire protection with more firefighters, stations and equipment.
Environmental groups said the extra money could help the city accelerate efforts to achieve the goals in its ambitious climate action plan. Repealing the law could also allow the city to double how often recycling is picked up, they said.
“We urge you to advise the City Council to place a measure on the ballot to amend the ordinance,” said Bertha Rodriguez, an organizer for Climate Action Campaign.
Louis Rodolico, a University City resident and former City Council candidate, said he is worried the city will allow private haulers to handle single-family trash and recycling if the People’s Ordinance is repealed.
“Keep corporations and their dark money away from our refuse collection system,” he said. “They always seem to find a way to beat up the lowest-income households.”
Rodolico said considering a repeal pits people living in single-family homes against people living in condos and apartments.
“We must confront any attempt, no matter how vague or mis-intended, to divide us, which is what I’m seeing here,” he said.
Councilmember Joe LaCava said he views a move toward treating everyone the same regarding trash pick-up as a move toward uniting residents, not dividing them.
LaCava praised Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera, who is spearheading efforts to repeal the law, for making a bold political move that has been considered politically risky because it would take away a free service from voters.
“It is no longer the third rail of San Diego politics,” said LaCava, noting that San Diego got a new mayor and five new council members last fall. “The political will is there.”
Elo-Rivera said the time to repeal the law is now.
“It is irresponsible, it is unfair, it is costly and it is a major barrier to achieving our environmental goals,” he said. “It’s irresponsible governance and it has to change.”
Councilmember Marni von Wilpert said she supports further analysis of a ballot measure because the trash law makes it harder for the city to encourage recycling and pay for trash and recycling services.
“I’m glad we’re having this conversation,” she said. “Furthering our environmental goals is incredibly important to me.”
Councilmember Chris Cate was less upbeat, saying he wouldn’t want to make San Diego any more expensive for residents than it already is.
Cate, the council’s lone Republican, said he is also skeptical of the idea that charging for trash will boost recycling, noting that San Diego now has higher recycling rates than many cities that don’t provide free trash pickup to anyone.
He also expressed concern that repealing the law would create a different kind of unfairness. He suggested that single-family residents would have no choice who picks up their trash, while people in condos and apartments would continue to be able to choose among private haulers.
The ballot measure would only require a simple majority for approval, not the two-thirds approval required for tax increases with a specific purpose. That’s because voters would not be asked to raise fees; they would be asked to amend the ordinance to call for a cost analysis that would determine the fees, city officials said.