A battle over the future of trash collection in St. Paul now shifts from the courtroom to the campaign trail.
The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday issued an order that the city’s year-old system of organized trash collection must be put on the Nov. 5 ballot. Voters will decide whether to affirm or overturn the plan, which rolled out in October 2018 and has been challenged by residents who say it gives them too little choice in how to dispose of their garbage.
Shirley Erstad, a founder of a group pushing for greater accountability in city government and a onetime candidate for the St. Paul City Council, called the high court’s ruling the first step “in taking our city back.”
“I think it will be a game-changer,” Erstad said. “We need leadership that will listen to the people.”
The city’s loss in the high court was the latest setback in a bumpy debut for city-run trash collection. Opponents persuaded the court that in its zeal to set up the system, the city ignored the rights of people to put the issue to a popular vote.
In a statement, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said: “We respect the decision from the Supreme Court and appreciate their clarity on how to proceed. The city will continue to ensure that garbage service continues uninterrupted, as we prepare for a referendum this fall.”
The City Council is scheduled to meet Friday to move forward with putting the issue on the ballot.
The court’s ruling, which keeps the trash plan in place until after voters decide in November, followed an expedited schedule that heard oral arguments Tuesday. A more detailed order by the court will come later, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote Thursday.
It is now up to garbage plan opponents — and those who prefer the plan’s standardization of pricing, delivery days and cart sizes — to marshal their forces.
The trash referendum will be on the same ballot as all seven seats of the City Council. Opponents say they believe the election will not only be a referendum on the trash plan, but on the council members who approved it. More than 6,000 people signed a petition asking that the plan be put to a public vote.
Erstad, who on Thursday was preparing to host a party at her house supporting a slate of mostly opposition candidates for City Council, said Carter’s announcement in May that the city would pay haulers through the end of the year even if it lost its appeal — and tap property taxes to cover it — proved leaders aren’t listening.
“And the Supreme Court ruling is a real wake-up call — for the checks and balances of power,” Erstad said. “This could be the day we take our democracy back.”
Defeat in November, however, is not a foregone conclusion. The City Council approved a five-year contract with haulers in 2017. And while opponents complain they are paying more for fewer options under organized trash collection, others say they’re happy fewer garbage trucks are rumbling down their streets and alleys each week.
The plan divides the city into several sections and assigns a private hauler to pick up trash for all homes — from single family to fourplex — in that section on a single day of the week. It also allows property owners to leave out large items two or more times a year at no additional cost.
But it also requires every housing unit to have its own cart, forcing owners of duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to pay for carts they say remain empty. It has eliminated the cost-saving option of sharing carts with neighbors. It also prohibits residents from contracting on their own with haulers for lower rates or finding cheaper alternatives for disposing their trash. Some who say they produce little waste say there is little flexibility to cut the standard rates set by the city.
If St. Paul voters approve the existing plan, organized trash collection will pretty much continue as is. If voters reject it, it’s unclear what officials would do next. St. Paul could continue its contract with the haulers, shifting the cost to property tax bills. Or the city could return to its old system of homeowners picking their own haulers and paying varying prices.
Previously, some 9,000 households had no hauler contracts, with some disposing of their trash in not-always-legal ways. City officials have said they moved to require each housing unit to have its own cart, in part, to cut down on illegal dumping.
It is not clear if the city’s contract with haulers would be affected by a “no” vote. Opponents say the city would be protected from a lawsuit by a vote to repeal. City officials are more wary. Four years remain on the agreement with haulers, and officials estimated that paying for the last six months of this year would cost about $13 million.