Talking Trash

Democrats want to keep your once-a-week garbage service, while Republicans ponder changing it

Fiorello LaGuardia, the Depression-era New York mayor, once opined that there was no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.

But in Tucson's City Council races, there is a major split between the parties on trash collection: The Democrats want to keep the current schedule of picking up garbage and recycling once a week, while Republicans say they'd explore different options, ranging from reducing service to privatizing the system.

Republican Rick Grinnell, who hopes to take the job of retiring Mayor Bob Walkup, says that the mayor and council should hold the line on the city's trash fee, which ranges from $15 to $16.75 per month, depending on the size of the customer's trash container. The fee covers the cost of the city's Environmental Services Department.

Earlier this year, the mayor and council voted to increase the residential fee by at least 50 cents per month as part of a budget deal. The fee, which has been a contentious issue in previous council elections, was put into place in 2004 to free up dollars in the city's general fund, which pays for police and fire protection, parks programs and other administrative business.

Instead of raising the fee, Grinnell says the city should have cut back trash service to once every 10 days or perhaps every other week.

"We extend these things out and save our resources," says Grinnell, a Rosemont Copper lobbyist. "It's common sense. That's the business side of running the government."

Democrat Jonathan Rothschild calls Grinnell's idea to cut back on trash collection "beyond any form of reason."

"A major issue in this campaign is providing basic services to our citizens," says Rothschild, an attorney who is seeking the mayor's seat after stepping down from running the Mesch, Clark and Rothschild law firm. "I can't imagine what would happen to the washes, to the arroyos, to the streets, to the restaurateurs and the people who generate a lot of garbage—what would happen to the smell of our community if we went to collecting the trash once every 10 days."

Problems with trash collection are not on the minds of the voters, says Rothchild. "I've been on the campaign trail for more than a year, and I've not heard anybody complain about the service that's provided. I'm a big believer in, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

Without regular collection on the same day of the week, Rothschild worries that residents would forget which day they should roll out their barrels. "One week, it would be Wednesday, and the next week, it would be Saturday, and then maybe Thursday," he says. "I don't think it's well-thought-out."

Grinnell doesn't see a problem in changing the schedule.

"Send 'em a notice in the water bill," he says. "You have to be flexible."

Grinnell says he's willing to examine privatizing the Environmental Services Department, but expressed reservations.

"It's not as simple as everybody thinks it is," says Grinnell, who notes that most county residents, who contract with private haulers, pay more than city residents. "Sometimes, there are things that the government does more efficiently than the private sector does."

Republican City Council candidate Tyler Vogt, who hopes to unseat Democratic Councilwoman Shirley Scott in Ward 4, says he'd push to privatize trash collection completely.

"It should be a private enterprise, not a city function," says Vogt, who would open the door for city residents to contract with any private hauler. "Once you get the competition in there, you're going to see your rates go down, and you would be able to reduce some city staff, so you can shrink the government and provide business opportunities for entrepreneurs."

Scott, who is seeking her fifth term representing the southeast-side ward, says city residents might see a bigger hit to their wallets if the city hands trash collection over to private haulers.

"Rates would go up for those who are now enjoying this particular service from the city," says Scott, who voted against implementing a trash fee in 2004 but now supports using one to cover the costs of the Environmental Services Department.

Vogt says he doesn't know why trash collection costs more in the county despite the competitive environment.

Councilman Paul Cunningham, a Democrat who hopes to hang on to the Ward 2 seat he was appointed to last year to fill a vacancy, says he opposes the idea of opening the city up to competing trash haulers.

"We'd have garbage trucks going through neighborhoods on a daily basis rather than one day a week," says Cunningham. "That's going to create a lot of traffic. That's going to create a lot of noise. I don't think that's a good idea at all."

Cunningham is open to studying privatization, but he's not convinced that it would lead to lower rates.

"Before we jump into privatization of anything, you have to see if it would pay off," said Cunningham, who expressed concern that a private company would fire the hundreds of sanitation workers now employed by the city, and might not want to manage the various dumps that the Environmental Services staff now monitors with money from the trash fee.

He also worried that the public would have little recourse if a private company raised rates.

"Right now, if the council raises the fee, the public has a say in it," Cunningham says. "I don't want to be in a situation where we hand that over to a private company, and they can do anything they want."

Cunningham's Republican opponent, Jennifer Rawson, says she believes that trash collection is among the city departments that "most probably could be run more efficiently, and could be run for less money with better service, if it were a private entity," but she's not sure if she'd prefer handing off Environmental Services to a private contractor to manage, or just letting private companies compete for trash contracts.

If the city does stay in the trash business, though, Rawson supports increasing trash fees as the budget demands. But she stops short of saying that the recent increase was justified.

"I don't know," she says. "We would have to take a look to see if all other alternatives had been exhausted before we raised fees."