The Brush Off

A mobile home park owner complains about the city's 'brush and bulky' trash pick-up fee.

Along the narrow, quiet paths at Bermuda Garden mobile home park, there is shock at sudden attention from City Hall, which placed door hangers on every home down to the tiniest temporary trailer to alert residents to a "sweep" by city garbage crews on the hunt for tree limbs and old appliances.

The notices for the city's first year "brush and bulky" collections could not be more useless.

"There is no brush and bulky, period," said Eugene "Sonny" Rickles, who with his wife, Mildred, has owned and operated Bermuda Garden, 826 W. Prince Road, for more than 40 years.

Notices informed Rickles and his tenants to have their landscaping debris, discarded appliances and other items in piles up to 10 cubic feet ready for pick up by 6 a.m. Monday.

But, in a page taken from the playbooks of phone and cable companies, the city has been considerate enough to tell Bermuda Garden residents that their "collection may vary during the week."

It gets worse.

For the privilege of having nothing for the city's "Brush and Bulky" trucks, Rickles has been charged $2 per space--he has 86--each month. Passing the $172 a month onto Bermuda Garden residents is out of the question.

Most simply cannot afford it.

Rickles has residents who try to get by on $300-$400 a month. Some are ill and forced to choose between food and medicine. For them, $24 a year is an impossible fee to pay for the city to round up piles of weeds, limbs or a broken chair twice a year.

"What about the poor person living in a 240-square-foot trailer?" Rickles asks. "Where are they going to get any 'brush and bulky?' If we ever get an old stove, my heavens, I call some old guy who comes and picks it up. And that's the end of it."

Not for the city's bureaucracy, which pushed the brush and bulky fee past an uncritical City Council majority last May, as City Manager James Keene and the council groped for ways to close what they contended was a $43 million deficit on a nearly $1 billion 2003-04 budget.

It is a crutch still used by city officials as they try to justify the mandatory fee to Rickles and other reluctant payers.

Sam Chandler, the peripatetic deputy director of city solid waste management, was quick to cite the deficit in a letter he wrote to answer Rickles' critique last fall.

"Therefore, new revenues had to be identified to prevent further cuts" to other city programs, Chandler wrote. The city was spending, Chandler asserted, $1.7 million a year to pick up 11,000 tons of brush and bulky debris.

Moreover, Chandler claimed, residents want to be charged for the brush and bulky collections. A city survey, conducted in October 2001, showed that support, Chandler said.

Sonny Rickles is not scared of government. He is not impressed by bureaucrats. And he certainly is not in awe of elected officials, many of whom he has helped place in office. As a leader of the mobile home lobby, he helped write many laws and helped spike many others. He served for 26 years on Pima County's influential Planning and Zoning Commission and chaired the committee that handled the most controversial and protracted issue--the Buffer Overlay Zone Ordinance, or BOZO--that was ultimately passed in 1988.

The dinners he hosts for politicians, and the power brokers who install and direct them, are legendary.

But at 77, Rickles is a little tired of having to swat another bad law that hurts poor people. In this case, the brush and bulky fee sneaks up on residents via water or sewer bills.

Rickles has received defensive responses from Councilmembers Carol West, a Democrat, and Kathleen Dunbar, a Republican, even though he supported both. Republican Fred Ronstadt, Rickles said, has pledged he would look into the issue.

Dunbar, who has earned high marks for constituent service in her two years in northside Ward 3, surprisingly told Rickles he was uninformed and that she would not change her vote.

Rickles did not ask her to change her vote, but rather to "finish" or fix the ordinance by instituting waivers where warranted.

He told West, beginning her second term in northeast Ward 2, the same thing.

A week after she won re-election, West started shutting the door on the waivers. She did so by leaning on the city's lawyers.

"Our attorneys felt that we must treat all residential customers the same," West said. "All citizens benefit from the program whether they participate or not ... in summary, the city's residential customers must pay the fee, whether or not they use the service."

But the brush and bulky fee extends even beyond that. Rickles considers himself fortunate that his park is full.

"The guy down the street has 26 vacancies. That's ($52) a month for nothing," Rickles said. Park owners must pay regardless for each space regardless of occupancy.

"If they want to make money, they could charge people who are actually using it," Rickles said. "They (city officials) have no idea, no idea what they are doing. It's unbelievable. In 40-plus years of business here, I've never had a city truck of any kind come in here and pick up anything."

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