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St. Paul’s epic fight over trash collection, explained

A look at what’s at the upcoming ballot measure; what a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would mean, and why garbage pickup is so controversial in the Capital City. 

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Even before the city put its new garbage bins on the streets, residents started petitioning city leaders to cancel the program.
In less than two months, St. Paul voters will go to the polls to vote on affirming or abolishing the city’s current trash-collection system. Here’s a look at what’s at stake with the measure; what a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would mean, and why garbage pickup is so controversial in St. Paul:

What’s this all about?

Under state law, municipal governments must establish regulations for collecting garbage, and they have two options for doing so: They can create citywide pickup programs or they can allow residents to enter into individual contracts with haulers on a household-by-household basis. 

Supporters of coordinated programs say they level the playing field in terms of costs and pickup schedules, as well as mitigate illegal dumping and impact on the environment (less vehicles out and about wearing on roads, using fuel, emitting pollution, etc.) A study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that residents in Minnesota cities with coordinated trash-collection systems paid less than those with the alternative setup, saving as much as $100 annually.

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For those reasons, cities across Minnesota from St. Anthony to Maplewood to Sauk Rapids have moved to uniform programs for residential areas in recent years. As of the late 2000s, nearly three-fourths of communities across the country and Canada have established coordinated pickup systems, according to the MPCA.

But not everyone supports the trend. Some residents believe they should have the right to choose their own hauler or opt out of trash collection services entirely. In Bloomington, where city leaders launched an organized system in 2015, residents pushed back against the change in court and later engaged in an unsuccessful campaign to amend the city’s charter.

Why is trash pickup such a hot topic in St. Paul?

For decades, St. Paul residents of single-family homes or small multi-family complexes hired their own trash haulers or coordinated with neighbors for pickup. 

But with households reporting vastly different bills and a parade of trucks on the same neighborhood streets and alleys throughout the week, city leaders in 2017 decided it was time for a change. In November of that year, the City Council passed an ordinance that established the framework for a city-run system. It established pickup schedules, household rates and decided which collection companies would cover what areas of the city all the while trying to maintain various haulers’ market shares. It also eliminated the option for neighbors to share containers and made trash collection mandatory in low-density areas. (Owners of housing complexes with five or more units are subject to different standards.)

The city spent about a year planning for the switch, figuring out how they would deploy tens of thousands of new city-owned trash containers and establishing a new cost scale. In Oct. 2018, St. Paul launched the new program, which would be governed by a five-year contract between the city and a consortium of trash haulers that included annual fees for administrative costs.

Even before the city put its new garbage bins on the streets, however, residents started petitioning city leaders to cancel the program. Among the opponents are households that call themselves “zero wasters” and oppose the idea of mandatory collection; they believe they’re better off sharing services with neighbors or not having trash pickup at all. 

Ann Dolan, of the city’s Macalester Groveland neighborhood, for example, said in court documents that when St. Paul launched its new program, she started hauling her own garbage to a dump every 6 to 8 weeks and only had to pay $4 per bag ⁠— a more efficient system, she said, than relying on her city-assigned hauler, Waste Management. “I have never used the city’s trash bin,” she said. “It sits empty next to my garage.”

Also opposed are residents who face higher bills as a result of the transition, or those who have had bad experiences with the trash haulers and had to confront them about incorrect bills. “Why are we paying double to 2.5 times as much for garbage service as the same house in Maplewood, which also has municipal collection?” asked resident Mike Schumann at a City Council hearing.

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Still other opponents of the new system simply argue that the council unjustly used its authority to establish the program without adequately seeking feedback from the public. 

By mid-October 2018, more than 6,400 people had signed a petition asking the trash program to go before a vote.  

City leaders denied that request, saying a referendum would go against their contract with the trash haulers and that state law on waste collection preempt the action. “It isn’t a matter of whether anybody likes it [the municipal system], it’s a matter of law,” St. Paul City attorney Lyndsey Olson said in November.

But the fight was far from over. Using the name “St. Paul Trash,” a group of activists raised more than $15,000 to pay for a lawsuit that was filed in Ramsey County District Court earlier this year alleging the City Council violated the city charter and unfairly denied voters’ input.

What did the courts say?

In May, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro sided with the property owners, saying they had obtained enough signatures for a referendum, as outlined by city charter, and that state law doesn’t conflict with their request for a vote. To that end, the judge also ordered the city to suspend its ordinance until voters could weigh in.

St. Paul leaders fought back. “Because a system, which took two years to create, simply cannot be unraveled in 30 days, we intend to appeal this decision,” Mayor Melvin Carter said at a news conference shortly after Castro’s decision.

That move sent the lawsuit to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case in August. Two days later, the high court affirmed the district court ruling and ordered the city to sponsor a ballot referendum in November. 

In the meantime, the city has kept its waste pickup system rolling, saying its contract with the haulers remains in effect, despite the court proceedings. Early next month, haulers will issue quarterly bills for Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 that residents must pay by Oct. 25, according to the Saint Paul Public Works.

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What does the ballot measure say and what does a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote mean?

Days after the Supreme Court’s decision, the St. Paul City Council held a public meeting to review language for the ballot measure, which Ramsey County election officials approved. It reads:

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.

Translation: A ‘no’ vote means the city will eliminate its current setup and go back to the drawing board. What’s unclear is whether that means it would go back to the pre-2018 time when St. Paul residents were responsible for their own garbage, or simply remove the mandatory aspect of a new municipal-run program. 

In recent weeks, the St. Paul Trash group has shifted its efforts to a ‘Vote No’ campaign, featuring garbage container messages, a web page (stpaultrash.com), social media, emailed newsletters and T-Shirts advertising “Trash Wars: The Resistance Lives.”

But no matter the election’s outcome, city leaders stress their contract with the haulers is not open for discussion; someone is going to have to pay them for the next five years. That means if voters repeal the ordinance in November, public works officials say, the city will have to find a way to generate $27.1 million to cover the agreement.

Where do city council candidates land on the ordeal?

The trash question will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, along with all City Council seats and four at-large school board positions.

In the council races, a few candidates are citing the garbage-collection controversy as a main reason for why voters should take a chance on them. (Six of the seven City Council races involve an incumbent who’s already received the DFL endorsement, a huge benefit in the heavily DFL city.)

Among the most critical candidates is Patty Hartmann, who is challenging council member Chris Tolbert to represents the Highland Park area (Ward 3). Working with the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and other St. Paul Trash activists, she said the back-and-forth between the city and activists over the past year has exposed big problems with the city’s current leadership

While our city claims to support affordable housing, it repeatedly burdens us with double digit tax increases,” she posted online. “The City Council pays lip service to ‘renters’ rights.’ Yet they voted to triple the renters’ trash collection costs, while filling their alley parking spots with empty trash carts.”

Another candidate Abu Nayeem, an educator who’s challenging incumbent Dai Thao in Ward 1, says he supports the referendum “because the current policy does not encourage residents to reduce trash and discourages neighborly behaviors” and that Carter and the City Council have handled the whole issue poorly.

Other challengers who are trying to gain the activists’ votes include candidates Jamie Hendricks, who’s running against Council President Amy Brendmoen to represent Ward 5, and Tarrence Robertson-Bayless, who’s challenging Mitra Jalali Nelson to represent Ward 4.

On the other side, Brendmoen says she supports the city’s switch to a coordinated system and will be voting “yes” in November to maintain it, even though she knows the contract with haulers isn’t perfect; she thinks it should allow for shared containers and reduced rates for people who don’t have a lot of waste, she said. 

But council members have also said voting down the ordinance would not get to the bottom of residents’ complaints. “Repealing this ordinance doesn’t create a better system, it just leaves the contract in place with no other thing to replace it and no way to fund it…” Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown St. Paul and surrounding areas, said last year. 

Council member Jane Prince, who voted against the haulers’ contract with the city but says she supports a coordinated program, put it this way: “For the 6,000 people who signed the petition, we hear you. We know we made mistakes here. There are a lot of unintended consequences we need to fix this thing.”