Election 2019: St. Paul trash referendum

I have been having a really hard time motivating myself to do these writeups this year — no idea why. I mean, I’ve done the basic necessary research for the races on my actual ballot, but sitting down and actually researching the rest feels overwhelming, which is sort of odd given that there aren’t all that many races to do. I think it’s probably a sense of perfectionism, like I can’t possibly weigh in unless I’ve watched all the forums (video is hard, it’s just a lot more time-consuming and you can’t skim).

Anyway, I’m going to note before I do my trash referendum write-up that if you value my work and would like to help me feel more motivated, I’ve got two options for you this year. I have a novel coming out in November, CATFISHING ON CATNET, which you can pre-order. Also, you may remember that last year I linked people to a couple of fundraisers on DonorsChoose for Minneapolis teachers — there was one, in particular, who was raising money to take fifth-grade students at Green Central Park School to Wolf Ridge Environmental Center. My readers really came through for her, and her students were able to make the trip, which is amazing. She has another class of fifth graders, and is fundraising again for another trip. It would make me very happy if my readers supported this project. Even if you disagree with me on everything and you drop by to find out who not to vote for, I’m clearly useful to you, so donate to let a bunch of kids go to Wolf Ridge, people.

SO HEY, ON TO TRASH. Here’s the question on the ballet:

CITY QUESTION 1 (St. Paul)
Referendum on whether Ordinance ORD 18-39 should remain in effect.
Should Ordinance ROD 18-39, entitled “Residential Coordinated Collection”, remain in effect for residential trash collection in St. Paul? Ordinance 18-39 creates new rules for the collection and disposal of trash and payment for trash service; and requires that certain residential dwellings have trash collected by a designated trash hauler. A “yes” vote is a vote in favor of keeping Ordinance ORD 18-39. A “No” vote is a vote to get rid of Ordinance ORD 18-39.

If you’d like to read the actual ordinance as written, it’s here (or, hey, the anti’s have it on their site in PDF form.)

YES
NO

Short answer: I’m voting yes.

When I moved to St. Paul from Minneapolis, I went out to my alley to see whether there was any sort of locally-coordinated hauler and made a list. There were EIGHT HAULERS serving my alley. There were trucks on my alley every single day. I was able to get yard-waste pickup but had to haul my own busted microwave to a drop-off site and pay $20 to dispose of it. Doing trash pickup this way, in a major city, is ridiculous. It also absolutely encourages illegal dumping. And I was lucky enough to have moved into Highland, which apparently got cheaper rates and more-reliable pickup than much of the rest of the city; according to Javier Morillo (via the podcast Wrong About Everything) there were neighborhoods where you could call all the haulers on your alley and be told “sorry, we’re not taking new customers in your area right now” and literally be stuck hauling your own trash to the dump.

This was a ridiculous situation.

The current system isn’t great, but it is heavily the result of what the City Council was told people wanted. St. Paul had a couple of micro-haulers and no one wanted to see them forced out of business, and so they negotiated a contract that prioritized giving even the very small haulers a suitable route (and then almost all the small haulers retired the first year, either because they were unhappy under the new system, or because one of the behemoths bought them out, or some combination). The upshot is that we’re paying more for less. If they’d simply opened bids from companies prepared to pick up citywide, or implemented true municipal hauling where the garbage collectors are city employees, we’d probably have gotten a better deal.

(When we lived in Minneapolis, our trash was picked up by Waste Management. My recollection is that we got a bill that was specifically for trash, but that it came from the city, not WM. We had a generous allotment of large items per year, and I really valued the fact that the answer to “what do I do with this?” was nearly always “stick it out on your alley with a sign,” with the major exception being hazardous household waste, which we could drop off at no charge at various sites. We never had problems with WM not picking our stuff up, but I did know of people who ran into problems occasionally.)

There are some legitimate frustrations with the current system. My friend who lives in Midway spent weeks not getting her trash picked up last year, and she’s not the only one who was having this problem. (PiPress article, St. Paul Library link.) It’s striking that the problems with pickup were overwhelmingly in poor neighborhoods. One of my other friends commented that the city did a crap-ass job at negotiating any sort of customer service accountability from the haulers. (The contract is up in four years, though, which means that it should be possible to intervene with the haulers providing crappy service and generating a lot of complaints and letting them know that if they have any expectation of continuing to haul trash in St. Paul after 2023 they need to step it up.)

Anyway, even if you hate the current system, voting no won’t get rid of it. Per the Minnesota Supreme Court this morning, we are stuck with this contract for the five years it runs. The claims from the Vote No side about “force majeure” letting us break the contract: officially off the table. If the majority votes no, the city will raise property taxes and pay for pickup that way, instead.

Apparently the Vote No side is still making this claim despite the ruling so let me just link you to the ruling (it’s here) and provide a quote of the most relevant bit:

Here, whatever the result of the referendum, the City’s contract obligations are not impaired. The City is contractually obligated to allow St. Paul Haulers the exclusive right to provide waste collection services. The outcome of a referendum on an ordinance that establishes waste collection will not terminate the contract and does not rise to the level of a constitutional impairment of a contractual obligation.

I don’t know how much clearer they could have made it while still sounding like they were writing a judicial opinion. If the “no” vote passes, the city will lose the ability to make individuals pay for trash collection, so we’ll stop getting bills and instead everyone’s property taxes will go up. That’s not a scare tactic! They are literally not going to have any other option other than cutting the pothole-filling budget by the amount they’re on the hook for for trash collection.

Interestingly, it’s not impossible that the people in poorer neighborhoods will actually come out ahead under the property-taxes plan. Businesses, which don’t get their trash picked up by the city but do pay property taxes, will be screwed, along with the owners of apartment buildings with more than four units (which in practice probably means their tenants). Also, people with large, nice houses, e.g. an awful lot of the people in Highland with “Vote No” signs, will definitely be paying more in higher taxes than they’re currently paying for trash pickup.

Anyway. Objections I’ve heard to the current system:

  • There are people in triplex/quadplex units who say their whole parking area is now filled with carts, since they’re all required to have separate carts. I have some sympathy for this. This strikes me as the sort of thing that could potentially even have been fixed under the current contract, but that definitely wasn’t going to be dealt with while the lawsuit, referendum, etc. were underway.
  • There are people who insist they produce NO TRASH, NONE, and should not have to pay for trash pickup. I have friends who produced no children, none, and still have to pay taxes for schools. I pay taxes to support all sorts of things I don’t like. You can pay a fee for the community’s garbage service.
  • Some people are paying more. I’m paying more, although not a ton more. Unlike our old system, everyone’s paying the same, you don’t get a discount because you live in a fancier neighborhood. There are also people who are paying less, which should give you pause if you think we’re being ripped off.
  • We’re paying more than Minneapolis and getting less. This is a legit complaint and I would be emphatically in favor of a less hauler-centric contract negotiation approach when the current contract expires.

Anyway. There is literally no vote here that rolls us back to individually-contracted pickup. “Yes” says “we should continue to bill households for trash hauling.” “No” says “we should switch to a system where this is paid for out of property taxes, at least until a new ordinance can be passed.”

And I’m just going to say again: this is a five-year contract and one year is done and it’s imperfect trash hauling and not, you know, a garbage-fire presidency of daily fresh horror. It is possible, with a municipal project like this, to say to your City Council reps that you are unhappy and wish them to fix the following problems when the contract comes up for renewal. Things I would like: more accountability for my friends who’ve had problems with their haulers; something closer to the Minneapolis standards for services and costs; maybe organics pickup?

I’d also really like citywide alley plowing instead of every block having to have some volunteer who hounds everyone for their $20, but I’m pretty sure after this particular clusterfuck it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. Lolsob. (I saw an article about this that talked about how our city plows are too big for alleys. I think Minneapolis deals with this by contracting with people with plows on pickup trucks, same as Saint Paul does but they don’t make individual homeowners handle it.) Anyway, anyone who says the current alley-plowing system is AWESOME and should not be replaced has just volunteered to be alley captain for their block for the next two years. Those are the rules now, just thought you should know.

10 thoughts on “Election 2019: St. Paul trash referendum

  1. Ironic that the champions of the “Vote No” campaign are owners of dozens of multi-unit apartment buildings all over town. They started charging me a $5/mo “trash fee” months ago even though the ordinance doesn’t apply to my building. Can’t wait to hear the excuse they come up with to raise my rent if the ordinance is repealed. As usual, renters get screwed and we just have to take it or find a new place to live in a rental market with 2% vacancy rate. Ugh.

  2. It’s debatable that we in St. Paul are paying more than Minneapolis. Minneapolis subsidizes its total waste bills through taxes and lumps its recycling costs into the same bill (which St. Paul does not). The sliding scale of cart sizes and frequency in St. Paul is wider than in Minneapolis, so a low-waste household in St. Paul pays less than an equivalent household in Minneapolis.

  3. Great analysis. I was soooo in support of city organized collection and still can’t believe how anyone could have screwed it up as much as St Paul did. (It was so bad that, after years of advocating for city alley plowing, I had second thoughts.) In general the base responsibilities of a city are usually providing water, sewer, garbage collection, streets, and street plowing. . . Like you, I’ll be voting Yes and hoping things get better. Especially since the recycling guys damaged my garage roof last week. Good grief.

  4. In some ways I would rather pay for trash in taxes (though maybe not property taxes) because it should be treated like other services that a city should have. I really want the “snowbird” exemption taken out. It makes no sense that you can “put your trash on hold” and not pay for it for many months just because you can afford to travel or own two houses. As a zero-waster (we do produce trash, just not a lot and we were fine hauling our own trash a few times a year before the current system), I do want to chip in on preventing illegal dumping and having less trash truck traffic even if trash pickup isn’t a service I need. But I don’t want snowbirds getting an exemption. Through taxes it could be linked to income which seems most fair. Looking forward to your book, Naomi, and planning to suggest it for purchase to SPPL (I have a great track record)–nice PW and Kirkus reviews!!

    • “Eliminate the snowbird exemption” seems completely legit to me, tbh. (And doing this with property taxes would, in fact, eliminate that exemption, which now makes me wonder how many of the “Vote No” signs are in the yards of snowbirds…)

      The problem with “taxes, but not property taxes” is that property tax is basically the only tax the city CAN impose on its own. Here’s an article that talks about this a bit: http://www.startribune.com/how-cities-raises-money-in-modern-era-minnesota/512276802/ They have to get permission from the state legislature to put in a new sales tax (and if they turned Duluth down for street renovations it’s hard to see them going along with it for garbage pickup). There’s no mechanism for income taxes paid to the city — we pay them to the Feds, and to the State of Minnesota, which returns a chunk through Local Government Aid (but LGA got slashed starting in the early 2000s and it’s frankly not money any city can count on when thinking about budgets more than a year out).

      And, thanks!

      • Good point on the taxes–now that I think about it, all the various bills we receive from the city are tied to property, right? (storm sewers, right of way, etc.) Property is kind of income-indicating (better than sales which is regressive unless it’s a luxury sals tax) so I guess that’s the fairest especially if the city did businesses’ trash pickup. Or I suppose it could be restricted to residential property. I’ll stick to my simple talking point that there should be no exemptions 🙂

      • Quite a few municipal services are based on usage. Water, for example.

        Trash disposal seems like one of the most use-sensitive things around. Different size bins, special rules for bulky items, etc.

        I’m impressed that you want to pay the same for disposal as someone who produces significantly more waste. I can’t say the same 🙂

      • The reason water can be by usage is that there’s no way to easily cheat the system and create a problem for others (filling up jugs of water at public faucets isn’t going to be very much fun). Whereas with trash, you could opt out of paying for services and then rather easily dump your trash in an alley, park, dumpster. That’s why I’m willing to pay for addressing all the problems of trash.

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