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An old San Diego law that's tough to throw out

Under the People's Ordinance of 1919, 60% of residents don't pay for garbage services. Trimming that exemption is a financial no-brainer — and perhaps a smart legal move — but has long been politically off-limits.

March 07, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • James Carter picks up trash in a San Diego neighborhood. The mayor is proposing that the city stop providing free garbage collection to some condo- and apartment-dwellers.
James Carter picks up trash in a San Diego neighborhood. The mayor is proposing… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — A recent city survey found that garbage pickup is the public's favorite municipal service. No wonder: It's efficient, environment-friendly and, for most, free.

Although most apartment and condo dwellers and businesses pay for garbage pickup, residents of single-family homes do not, thanks to the so-called People's Ordinance of 1919.

The unusual law was spurred by civic anger over a Los Angeles entrepreneur who was charging to pick up San Diego garbage and then selling it as pig slop, reaping a large profit.

Today, residents of about 304,000 homes receive free trash service, costing taxpayers about $50 million a year in a city struggling with a weak economy and ballooning pension costs that may spur layoffs of police officers and firefighters.

Now, Mayor Jerry Sanders, looking to close a $58.9-million budget gap, has gone where few politicians have dared by proposing an end to no-charge service for apartment and condo residents who were grandfathered into the People's Ordinance by a 1986 amendment.

About 102 apartment and condominium complexes receive free trash removal service. Residents of about 1,046 complexes, most built since 1986, pay private companies about $20 a month for pickup.

Overturning the 1919 ordinance would take a public vote. Given San Diego's historic anathema to taxation, that's considered next to impossible. In November, city voters rejected a half-cent on the dollar sales tax hike despite dire warnings that without it, public safety agencies would face layoffs and service reductions.

The People's Ordinance is "the third rail of local politics that no politician wants to touch," said longtime San Diego political consultant Bob Glaser.

"It was one of the first true people's revolts where the power of the voter stepped in and told government: 'This is what we want,' " Glaser said.

Successive grand juries have branded the 1919 ordinance an anachronism, inequitable and a financial no-brainer. But grand jury members are not elected.

Two years ago the City Council deadlocked 4 to 4 on how to respond to a grand jury recommendation that a public vote be scheduled. The idea quickly died.

Apartment and condo-dwellers have been crying foul since being warned in December that come July 1 the days of free service are over.

"This is nothing but a tax increase in disguise," said one.

"We're a working-class community, we can't afford this increase," said another.

After hearing such complaints, a City Council committee voted last week to ask the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would strip the mayor of his authority in the issue.

"We need to protect these people; they've done nothing wrong," said Councilman Carl DeMaio, a candidate for the 2012 race to succeed the termed-out Sanders.

Rather than charge for garbage pickup, the city should redouble its efforts at pension reform, outsourcing and reducing labor costs, DeMaio argued. He rejects the assertion that the pickup is free, noting that all residents pay taxes.

Sanders is also recommending that the no-cost service for small businesses be ended. Unlike the apartment/condo plan — which the mayor can enact on his own — the business plan needs council approval.

Sanders estimated that his plan would save the city about $1 million a year.

Of California cities with populations of more than 7,000, only three do not charge residents of single-family homes for garbage collection: San Diego, Newport Beach and El Monte.

According to City Hall figures, 60% of San Diego residents enjoy the free service, while 40% must pay private haulers.

Officials have long worried that someone might sue over the People's Ordinance, alleging unequal treatment: Apartment residents in blue-collar areas like Encanto and Paradise Hills get a garbage bill, while affluent homeowners in La Jolla and Point Loma do not.

"I'm just wondering if we're setting ourselves up to lawsuits," Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said during the recent committee discussion.

The issue is set to come back to the Natural Resources and Culture Committee in late April. "It will be trash day," said committee Chairman and Councilman David Alvarez.

Also:

Forbes magazine again names Stockton 'America's most miserable' city

A pair of wartime letter eye-openers

tony.perry@latimes.com

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