Managing Budget Garbage Pain


Katy Grimes: The threats of massive cuts to police, fire, sheriff, teachers, and parole programs are just not as visible as a city that has let the grass grow in parks or doesn’t pick up the garbage. Missing a few garbage pickups will get everyone’s attention quickly when dealing with budget threats and cuts to city staff.

Welcome to Sacramento – the city which let the grass in regional parks grow to knee-height, until neighborhood volunteers took over the big maintenance projects, but not without a fight.

I live in a downtown Sacramento neighborhood which is facing not just threats of cuts to our park, police and schools, we are battling garbage and yard debris pickups. And the city vehemently denies that there is an organized “sickout,” but most drivers have called in sick.

On the busiest, visible streets, and for residents who “opted out” of using yard waste cans — which are only picked up eight times a year — neighbors say that it seems waste pickups in Land Park and South Land Park are much less frequent. Daily sightings of garbage trucks and claw machines occur, but only whizzing past the homes with piles of yard waste and overflowing garbage and recycle cans.

With the recent winds, rains as well as the long wet winter in Sacramento, the city is not addressing the increased debris from trees – huge branches, and more leaves than usual filling yards, gutters and now piles of yard waste and cans. Neighbors complain that they cannot put large branches in the cans, or if they are able to with the help of a chain saw, there is no room for the regular yard debris.

Sacramento is known as the tree capitol of the world, and Land Park, immediately south of the city is tree-lined and is home to a large regional park. Given the tree designation, the yard waste is significant. Historically, the city of Sacramento has always allowed piles of yard waste piled at the curb. Picked up weekly, the yard waste piles have not been embraced by all residents, given the increased city parking limitations on residential streets and overflow parking problems from Sacramento City College.

But in recent months, the city of Sacramento announced that it had purchased new yard waste cans for my neighborhood. Residents would receive a discount for accepting the cans, or would eventually pay extra to keep a yard waste pile on the street.

The new 50-gallon can increased the number of residents’ garbage cans to three – one traditional 50-gallon garbage can, one 50-gallon recycling can, and now the 50-gallon yard waste can. This creates a storage and space problem for most residents.

However, the city has only occasionally been scooping up the piles of yard waste or emptying the yard waste bins in my neighborhood. But the billing charges have not decreased with the diminished service, while the yard waste piles in front of my neighbor’s homes have been piling up for eight weeks.

There seems to be a standoff between the Land Park residents and the city — but no one is talking. Neighbors have called the city to complain but report they are told by the city that the yard waste piles will only be picked up when they get to it – particularly for the residents who received the yard waste cans. Now, after two months, neighbors report the yard waste piles will be picked up on May 24.

Unlike the newer neighborhoods in Sacramento, my neighborhood is made up of homes built as early as the 1900’s, with most built in the 1920’s and 1930’s – the trees are huge, many, and leave a great deal of debris behind. What works for one downtown neighborhood does not work for another.

Choosing to keep a yard waste pile or receiving a can was not really an option the way the city presented it. Residents received notice that cans would be delivered unless they formally opted out of the program, but most residents in my neighborhood have reported that they did not even know about the program until the can was delivered. Others were angry about being limited to a 50-gallon garbage can in a neighborhood filled with trees. The cans fill up after one afternoon of yard work for most residents.

The high visibility of the problem is reminiscent of the last garbage strike in New York City over cuts to benefits and entitlements for union employees. It’s not much different in Sacramento, with the city allowing local union 39 – a particularly nasty, aggressive branch of the  AFL-CIO – to set the guidelines and dictate terms to the city. Sacramento’s city services have been diminishing, while the costs have continued to climb.

The unofficial “sickout” which the city is denying, is causing a great deal of anger, and not just because of the garbage backup – being held hostage by over-compensated city workers is at the root of the problem. While workers’ wages and benefits have exponentially grown over the last two decades, service has declined. Taxpayers have gotten the short end of the stick.

City residents may have tolerance for cuts to police, fire and teachers, but garbage backups are much too visible to ignore. Even in very liberal Sacramento, residents may finally have experienced too much push back from unions. We love volunteering for park maintenance days, but getting volunteers for garbage and yard debris pickups may be more difficult.

And yes, that’s a box on the pile with writing that says “6 weeks – no pickup.” It’s been there for a while.

MAY 6, 2011

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