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

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.


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.


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.


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.”

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Tom Cytron-Hysom on 09/13/2019 - 11:58 am.

    One aspect of this situation rarely mentioned: St. Paul created a contract with a consortium of haulers. Each household was then forced to create an account with one of the haulers, and pay their bills, even though the household was a 3rd party that never signed the contract. How can we all be bound by contracts we never signed? I deeply dislike my assigned hauler, Waste Management, yet I have no recourse. If the City took over directly the collection of garbage, it would maintain all of the environmental benefits of coordinated collection, while getting rid of the indirect contracts. My friends in Minneapolis pay less and get much better service via municipal collection – why can’t we.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/13/2019 - 02:39 pm.

      Because the people (really, the haulers) fought against real municipal collection. This was the compromise.

      • Submitted by Brian Johnson on 10/05/2019 - 10:59 pm.

        I live on the west side and had waste management before they were fine and I paid about $55 every three months. I was forced to change carriers and there is no flexibility on price I now pay $110 a every 3 months and have a smaller bin. I also want to mention I pay more than my parents in West St Paul and my sister in South St Paul, I am voting NO to bring back choice

  2. Submitted by Jack Fei on 09/13/2019 - 01:02 pm.

    A ‘yes’ vote means to work to improve what is in place. A ‘no’ vote means to start over again. In short, the St Paul version of Obama Care except we, the people, can decide. Everyone needs to vote: otherwise elitist organizers and their lawyers prevail again.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/13/2019 - 06:50 pm.

      I disagree. A “yes” vote would leave them free to continue as they have been, with no incentive to improve. The only way to force improvement is through a “no” vote.

    • Submitted by JaNae Bates on 10/22/2019 - 01:03 pm.

      Jack, you’re spot on. There are many people who are paying less with the organized system. Let’s vote yes to work together to improve it. Amendments are possible. There was already one made before the lawsuits started. Voting yes will get us back on track toward progress.

  3. Submitted by David Sisk on 09/13/2019 - 04:06 pm.

    I thought the initial trash agreement was a good idea, and I still think it’s a good idea. Sadly, the City’s execution has been abysmal. We’re paying more and getting less. Competition is gone: the big national haulers (looking at you, Waste Management) have effectively forced out the smaller local trash firms. Service has deteriorated, with no incentive to improve. Errors are routine. When you complain to the haulers, they direct you to the City. Call the City, and you’ll be told “talk to your hauler.” I will vote ‘No’ because St. Paul officials, including my Council member, have made no visible efforts to fix the glaring problems with this program. Instead, these officials have fought hard and spent lavishly to defend their trash program. I think this behavior clearly shows a City government more interested in protecting its pet project than in meeting the needs of its citizens.

  4. Submitted by JUDITH MONSON on 09/13/2019 - 09:10 pm.

    I’m one of those households who lost their small private hauler to Waste Management. Although I may also be in the minority as someone whose monthly bill has gone down, I agree with many others that the Mayor and City Council were ham-handed in their dealings. Why, for example, didn’t they take the time to survey residents and then use citizen input to create a garbage pickup system? Why, at the time of implementation, didn’t they create a simple appeals process such that reasonable requests could be honored? Mayor Carter is always talking “diversity,” yet neither he nor the Council were ready to listen to “diverse” opinions from citizens. And now, to pressure citizens into voting YES, the Mayor is suggesting, no matter what happens, monies will be garnered from our property tax to make up whatever difference is required to “make whole” the haulers. Frankly, we don’t need either a Mayor or City Council that is unresponsive to its citizens. Just wait! Voters will have the last word in November — and for the Mayor some later November! Meanwhile, let’s celebrate Mayor Carter’s two signature accomplishments — 4th of July fireworks ban and ban on library fines! Never mind the garbage!

    • Submitted by Jeremy Stomberg on 09/18/2019 - 08:33 pm.

      Fireworks…ban? What fireworks ban? Choosing not to have fireworks is not banning fireworks. Hell, the Saints have a display every Friday night home game all summer long.

      • Submitted by Brian Johnson on 10/05/2019 - 11:05 pm.

        Maybe you did not follow the story but the mayor came forward and said he had no money to spend on fireworks on the 4th of July he also felt that the city sould not pay for fireworks on the 4th only at the saints stadium. The saints and their sponsors put together the funds and asked for a fireworks permit and were denied.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/13/2019 - 10:00 pm.

    I see parallels between this and MNLARS. If liberals want government to work, they can’t have debacles like this. Is there any other city anywhere that has such a convoluted system as this?

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 09/16/2019 - 08:03 am.

      In Minneapolis and other “liberal” cities, their systems work fine. If you’re going to create a red herring, maybe you should use “Socialism”?

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/16/2019 - 05:39 pm.

        Ok, I’ll be more explicict.

        Liberals can design great, well run gubmint programs, like Social Security. This program, and MNLARS, are neither great nor well run. They are both fiascos.

        And I’d hazard a guess that no other municipality in Minnesota has an organized trash pick up anything like this, for good reason.

        I was looking forward to this, not was I wrong.

  6. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 09/14/2019 - 12:40 am.

    The City’s claim that they are bound by this contract for 5 years, regardless of what happens in the referendum is pure BS. The contract has a Force Majeure clause that makes it unenforceable if the NO vote wins.

    The City was totally bamboozled by Waste Management to guarantee them a city wide rate that is more than twice the fair market price for garbage collection for the next 5 years, so they could buy up all of the small independent haulers. The only way to fix this is to vote NO and start over.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/14/2019 - 10:15 am.

    I hate to say it but this is just another example of a neoliberal fiasco.

    First you rely on “free” markets which produces an expensive and inefficient system. Then you try to fix the “market” instead of simply working the problem and picking up the trash. I think Pat Terry is absolutely correct, they ended up with a compromise in St. Paul that kept multiple haulers collecting the garbage and produced a weird contract to make that system work.

    It looks like St. Paul ended up with an more complex and costly administrative regime in order to preserve diversity or something.
    We’ve had coordinated trash in St. Louis Park since the 1960’s. When I was a kid they were city trucks, but somewhere along the line they contracted it out. Right now we have Wast Management, and we have few if any complaints.

    We have three bins: One 60 gallon garbage, one 90 gallon recycling, and one 30 gallon organic. We pay $77.74 every quarter, so that’s what? $310 a year. And we get 3 large boxes of those green organic bags for free every year. We’ve never had to buy bags.

    The waste bill is part of our municipal service fee that includes water and sewer. It’s almost impossible to have a billing problem of any kind.

    Whenever we’ve had a problem, and the “biggest” problem we’ve ever had is the haulers leaving the bins in the driveway blocking it in the morning, I’ve called, and they stop doing it. I’ve called twice in 25 years. I know, I’m being putsy but in the winter it’s a hassle for my wife (who leaves before I do) to get out and move bins out they way. Blocking everyone’s driveways when they’re leaving for work is a bonehead move.

    You have options in SLP, you CAN opt out by simply not getting any bins, but we have other ordinances about leaving garbage lying around the property so if you’re going to haul your own you better store it properly. Many of our neighbors have smaller bins (30 gallons) and that brings the cost down to $52 a quarter ($208 per year). You can also set up collection for every other week instead of every week. You CAN get garbage collection in this town for as little as $108 or so a year.

    I’m not bragging I’m just providing this for comparison. I don’t know why a larger city couldn’t negotiate the same deal or even a better one with Wast Management. On the other hand, maybe some people think this is bad deal?

    One more little advantage to coordination- SLP has a weak mayor system, for the most part the daily nuts and bolts of our city are run by city managers who actually get degrees in running cities. Decades ago some manager tacked a dollar or so onto our sewer/water/garbage bill and that’s now paying for city-wide replacement of all the streets, sewer, and water lines. We don’t pay any assessments or vote or levies, etc. it’s paid for. So big heavy garbage trucks are only running down our streets once a week, we have affordable services, and our infrastructure is getting updated and maintained. Again, I’m not trying to brag, I’m not saying I live in paradise, it’s just an example. I would assume other cities have the same experience.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 09/14/2019 - 05:36 pm.

      I think you and other commenters bring up valid points–sometimes it pays to have managers who know what they are managing vs someone’s friend or someone who sat on lots of committees. Another point is sometimes you can’t please everyone, so don’t try. It boggles the mind that when it comes to some city basics Mpls and St. Paul seem to be struggling. Raising taxes can’t be the automatic go to. At the same time, no one wants their neighbor’s garbage sitting around for 5 weeks until they can find time to haul it, that works in a less populated area, but not in a city.

      • Submitted by Diggitt McLaughlin on 09/15/2019 - 08:31 pm.

        Not so! My ST Paul household has three large garbage cans, into which we put smaller bags of garbage. Every couple of months we take it all downhill to the transfer station, where we pay $45-$50 for the lot. Our metal garbage cans have fitted lids which don’t fly away. Our neighbors have no complaints about our garbage, nor should they. We are close-to-zero wasters, and under the city’s program we would pay at least three times that.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2019 - 08:03 am.

          It looks like St. Paul screwed up it’s waste management plan, but it also looks like you pay just about the same as I do for my service in SLP, and you’re hauling your own garbage. While you may not “need” a garbage truck they’re still driving on your streets and alleys just as much as they would if you used them… they would just drive by your house without picking anything up.

        • Submitted by Christy james on 11/04/2019 - 03:09 pm.

          I’m curious. Don’t you also have to pay for the coordinated garbage at your St. Paul home? I thought all St. Paul homes had to pay and if you didn’t choose a can size the City would choose one for you and you were billed for that service. Or were you referring to the costs of hauling it yourself before the Coordinated program was implemented?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/14/2019 - 06:36 pm.

      There was a strong desire among a lot of citizens to keep the mom and pop haulers alive. I get that, and I’m sympathetic to that. On the other hand, the big fish have been eating the little fish in this economy for generations. And those who favored the mom and pop haulers, well, they’ve long ago stopped getting their shaving cream and band aids at the corner drug and started buying those things at Target. Now, they don’t hardly even find a corner drug store.

      Most of all, I can’t believe how many people are so fixated on what they consider to be a special relationship to a garbage hauler. It’s garbage, for Pete’s sake. Do they invite these people to their kids’ weddings and grad parties? If it disappears every week, who cares who takes it? If the service is good and the price is reasonable, that’s all that matters.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2019 - 08:53 am.

        Yeah, I can be sympathetic to the mom n pop thing, but what do supposed happens when you try to charge mom n pop for their wear and tear on the city streets? And really, that whole discussion just bring us back to the problem of privatization of public services. Sure, once a city gets rid of all of it’s own equipment (garbage trucks) and relies on a contractor, you start moving towards a potential hostage situation. If a hauler like WM captures the market as the only hauler capable of handling a large cities garbage, and they’re the only ones around with that capability… it can get hard to negotiate lower rates. But a problem like that emerges from a market competition model rather than a public utility model. The “St. Paul” model wasn’t/isn’t a solution.

        In the end we may have to scrap the “competition” model if monopolies emerge, but I don’t think we’re there yet as far as garbage hauling is concerned.

        • Submitted by Diggitt McLaughlin on 09/15/2019 - 08:33 pm.

          All this stuff about city streets, the wear and tear on, baffles me. We live in Minnesota, folks. We have snow and ice on our streets for months on end, folks. And don’t forget the salt on the streets, folks. It’s not the garbage trucks!

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2019 - 09:14 pm.

            I’m not saying it’s just the garbage trucks, but traffic, cars and trucks are what tear up the streets. Without traffic snow, ice, and salt would just sit there. We know that heavy vehicles cause more damage, this is why we have weight restrictions, so if you have these vehicles on the streets 5-6 days a week it will take a toll on the streets.

          • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/16/2019 - 07:45 am.

            There is a world of difference between a 64K garbage truck and passenger vehicles. Even school buses don’t do the amount of damage to alleys that garbage trucks do. Side streets are engineered for heavier traffic than alleys, but garbage trucks do a number on side streets also.

            In short, it IS the garbage trucks for alleys. They significantly reduce the lifespan of an alley. And it is property tax payers that pick up the tab.

            The profits are private, the loses are socialized.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/15/2019 - 08:45 pm.

          One of the things I pounded on over and over was the fact that I was subsidizing the private haulers because they were socializing the costs of street maintenance. Alleys were never engineered to take the beating delivered by a modern 60K pound garbage truck.

      • Submitted by rich solomon on 10/26/2019 - 09:59 am.

        I don’t know how you figured out that supporting “mom and pop” businesses is so unimportant to other people in Saint Paul. I for one liked having a direct business relationship with my small trash hauler. They charged a little more, but my rates weren’t unreasonable, and they treated me well the few times I talked to them. I liked the fact that I was free to change haulers if my service didn’t meet my needs. Now I’ve lost that.

        I’m ok with the city managing trash hauling, but they didn’t need to make the change in the first place. If they really want to make things better for residents they should figure out how to collect yard waste, at least in the fall.

        And by the way I do try to buy my band-aids and such at the corner drug store instead of Target when I can. For other things like electronics Target is better.

        You are welcome to ignore small businesses if you like, just don’t tell me what you think I care about.

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