Garbage In, Garbage Out?

Some City Council members are considering privatizing trash pick-up

Unable to find four votes to establish a monthly garbage fee, some members of the Tucson City Council are now considering eliminating the service altogether and allowing private contractors to pick up garbage and recycling.

"I've sent out a memorandum asking the manager to look at taking solid waste and eliminating that service from the city of Tucson," says Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt.

Under Ronstadt's proposal, the city would still be responsible for running the Los Reales landfill, as well as dealing with other environmental clean-ups at other city dumps. But citizens would pay a private company to haul away the weekly waste.

City Manager Jim Keene's $1.018 billion budget proposal, unveiled to the council on April 19, includes a $14 monthly charge for residential garbage collection. Four council members--Republican Kathleen Dunbar and Democrats Shirley Scott, José Ibarra and Steve Leal--have already announced they oppose the fee. Mayor Bob Walkup and Ronstadt, both Republicans, have said they're keeping on open mind regarding all of Keene's proposals, while Councilwoman Carol West, a Democrat who represents eastside Ward 2, says she supports the fee.

West says she's reluctant to support the privatization proposal, but it may be the only way to free the general-fund dollars that are now supporting the city's Environmental Services Department so that they can be spent on public safety and transportation.

"When Fred first broached this, I wasn't excited about it, because I don't like doing that to our workers," says West.

But West says she believes that Dunbar can be persuaded to support the system's privatization, even though she opposes a fee collected by the city.

"The devil would be in the details in this thing, but I'm beginning to think that's what we're going to have to do if we can't break this impasse," says West.

Dunbar did not return a phone call regarding her position on privatizing garbage collection, but she opposed fees during her 2001 campaign for the council seat. She reiterated her opposition during a budget meeting last month, saying, "When does your word mean something?"

Solid waste isn't the only area where Ronstadt is looking to trim costs. He also advocates merging the Parks and Rec's heavily subsidized afterschool program, KidCo, into similar state programs and is examining whether the city courts can be eliminated, with cases being handled in Pima County courts instead.

"I'm still looking for ways to thin down government as opposed to trying to generate more revenue," Ronstadt says.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says the county courts could prosecute misdemeanors now handled by city court, but he's not sure what would happen to violations of city code.

"I guess they could repeal their laws," says Huckelberry.

Ronstadt is also clashing with the county over Keene's proposal to eliminate $9.6 million in city funding for local libraries in the hope that the Pima County Board of Supervisors will take over the burden.

"We're not asking any favors," says Ronstadt "The county has the library district."

The library district now raises about $12 million a year to contribute to libraries, according to Huckelberry. The library system itself is controlled by the city through an intergovernmental agreement with the county. Since city residents pay both property taxes to support the library and contribute the city's general fund through sales taxes, Ronstadt suggests they're being "double-taxed."

"Citizens in the unincorporated areas are enjoying the benefits of the taxes of people who live in the city," Ronstadt says.

County officials, who provide about $12 million in funding for libraries, have balked at the idea of assuming full responsibility. In order to maintain current funding, they would have to nearly double the property tax that funds libraries.

Asked if he thinks property taxes should be increased to fund libraries, Ronstadt says the proper mechanism is the library district, "and if we want a library system that addresses the needs of the community, you have to pay for it."

If the city goes through with the plan to cut funding for libraries, Ronstadt says the city, which runs the library system, will first seek to shut down libraries outside the city limits.

"I think that if the county doesn't want to fund the libraries to the level that is needed, then we'll close the libraries, and we'll start with the libraries in the unincorporated area of Pima County," he promises. "Since we're in control of the librarians and the buildings, it's going to be very easy, for me at least, to say we're closing the ones in the county first."

Huckelberry says Ronstadt might find it harder to implement his plan than the councilman anticipates. The intergovernmental agreement between the county and the city covers the funding responsibilities of both jurisdictions, as well as the hours libraries will be kept open. Even if it didn't, the agreement is renewed annually.

"The IGA covers the hours of operation that libraries will be open and everything else," says Huckelberry.

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