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Newport Beach residents may be losing their beloved 'trash men'

Newport is one of the few municipalities where trash pickup is still handled by city workers. The tradition may soon be discarded.

September 15, 2013|By Emily Foxhall
  • Newport Beach trash collector Art Mitchell, center, shakes hands with resident Michael Glenn after they talked about the city's vote to outsource trash pickup to a private company. Even in a city where residents know the value of money saved, some believe that getting rid of the trash collectors is going too far.
Newport Beach trash collector Art Mitchell, center, shakes hands with… (Kevin Chang, Daily Pilot )

Along with its stunning beaches, picturesque harbor and a faithful ferry that takes people and their cars to a quaint island of shops and cottages, Newport Beach has long given its residents the perk of personalized trash service.

No color-coordinated trash bins, no automated trucks, no intolerance for oversized discards.

In Newport Beach, "the trash men," as they are known, walk curbside, house to house, emptying garbage cans by hand into one of the city's sky-blue trucks. An old mattress or unwanted piece of furniture? No problem. Need a hand carrying out an old toilet? Say no more.

For resident Dan Boyd, Newport's trash service is one of the town's "jewels," right up there with the cops and firefighters.

Newport Beach is one of the few municipalities where trash pickup is still handled by city employees, many of whom have been on the job so long that residents know them by name.

But that may be grinding to a halt.

After a consultant determined that Newport Beach could save $17 million over the next seven years, the City Council voted last week to open negotiations with a private waste company to pick up the trash.

City officials contend the level of service won't decline if it's farmed out and that the automated trucks that private companies use make the workers' job far more humane.

"The private sector has mastered this service," said City Manager Dave Kiff. "It's very clear to me."

But even in a city where residents know the value of money saved, some believe that getting rid of the trash collectors is going too far.

"One of the best parts of Newport Beach is associated with the garbage, because of the people that work it," said lifelong resident John Klug, 56. "They're one of the few points of contact that everybody has with the city."

Residents take their trash seriously enough that several have hosted community meetings to publicize the issue. More than 50 of Boyd's neighbors gathered at his Newport Heights home this month to discuss the potential outsourcing with their city councilman and city staffers.

As the sun set over Newport Harbor, they peppered the officials with angry questions. Why can't residents pay extra for the service? (The municipal code forbids it.) Why can't residents vote on it? (City representatives are elected for that reason, they said.) How much would it cost to go back to city trash haulers if a private company failed to meet their standards? (Unclear.)

Through the evening, residents were clear they want the city to keep its hands off the trash service and that the quality their trash men provide couldn't be exceeded by any large company.

Though a few cities, including Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, hire their own trash collectors, others, such as Rancho Palos Verdes and West Hollywood, long ago outsourced the jobs, typically as a cost-saving move.

Despite the wealth in Newport Beach, the city has been tightening its belt. Nearly 100 jobs have been eliminated over the last four years, and the city has outsourced tree trimming, street sweeping and park maintenance.

On a recent Friday, residents in the Eastbluff neighborhood paused to offer support to their local trash man as he worked his route.

Whether the bins were round or square, green or black, Art Mitchell dumped them all, one by one, replacing the lids upside-down.

Under the current system, residents can pick whatever container they want to use — or use no container at all. As he moved on from Klug's home, Mitchell picked up trash bags, cardboard boxes — even mattresses and a bed frame.

He helped Ian Fitz-Gibbon, 48, throw away an old toilet he had been storing in his garage.

"We love you guys. We want to keep you here forever," said Fitz-Gibbon, fist-bumping Mitchell before the two lifted the American Standard into the trash truck's lowered bin.

Tall and skinny, Mitchell, 48, defies the burly trash-man stereotype.

He scans the street from behind thick-rimmed glasses, and his brown mustache reaches to his chin, just visible beneath his work mask. He wears gloves with "Jesus is Lord" scrawled on the tops, a floppy wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt with the name "Art" and the Newport Beach city logo on the front.

"You don't want just anybody looking through your stuff," said Mitchell, an old baking pan and a pair of jeans tumbling from a bin he was emptying.

Mitchell has hauled trash in Newport Beach for 12 years, a far shorter time than many other city collectors. In all, the 16-member squad has worked a combined 125 years, said Tim Steed, a representative for the Newport Beach Employees League. City trash collectors can earn about $60,000 or more with overtime. Like other city employees, they are eligible for a pension. One of the private firms under consideration offers a base salary of $46,000.

Mitchell says the work has a certain enjoyable rhythm.

Even when navigating the tight alleys of the Balboa Peninsula, with inches between the trucks' side mirrors and the houses, it is business as usual for the trash men.

Said Mitchell's colleague David Guzman, 34, whom he calls "Guzy": "We've been doing this a long time, so we have this down to the finger."

The morning after the City Council voted to pursue outsourcing, Susan Riddle, 60, said she went outside in her pajamas and flip-flops to give her trash men a hug.

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