Todd Fairbanks hasn’t paid his garbage bill since last fall, and he doesn’t plan to start.
In fact, he said, he never removed the tape sealing the 64-gallon cart that the city of St. Paul delivered to his house last year.
“I recycle 98% of my garbage,” said Fairbanks, who lives on the city’s East Side. “The little bit of scraps I have, I give to the neighbor’s dog. I just don’t need this can.”
Dozens of St. Paul residents are fighting their first garbage bills under the city’s new organized collection system, and Fairbanks was one of about 20 who came to City Hall on Thursday to make their case. Some refuse to pay out of principle. Others said they paid on time but were mistakenly double billed.
Summit-University resident Andree Landrum said she made numerous phone calls to her trash hauler and the city after her payment was accidentally credited to her neighbor’s account.
“There’s all this confusion,” Landrum said, “and all I wanted to do was pay my bill.”
Trash haulers that didn’t receive payment for service at the end of 2018 have turned bills over to the city, which is serving as the bill collector and adding the garbage fees onto property tax bills. City records show that 1,112 properties are being assessed for delinquent trash bills totaling more than $120,000.
The public works department has budgeted about $2.8 million to deal with unpaid garbage bills in 2019.
Organized trash collection began in October, and Tuesday was the city’s first appeal hearing on trash bills. Some residents didn’t show; others arrived at the wrong time or on the wrong day altogether. City staff scrambled to pull together paperwork for unexpected arrivals and, in one case, to call a Somali interpreter phone line for a couple who said they’d been billed for a trash cart they didn’t have.
West 7th neighborhood resident Teresa Schnell said she’s paying more for garbage hauling than she was before organized trash collection began, and said it’s “entirely unfair” that residents have no choice but to pay the hauler assigned to them.
“I know there’s nothing you can do about that, and that this isn’t really entirely the space for it, but I feel that it’s very important for now,” she told Marcia Moermond, the legislative hearing officer who hears tax assessment appeals.
“I understand,” Moermond replied. “Today is going to be a day about people putting on the record things that are this type of concern.”
Under the organized collection system, haulers collect trash along designated routes, rather than crisscrossing the city as they did before the system was implemented. All residential property owners of households with up to four units, including rentals and townhouses, are required to have one garbage cart per unit.
The system has drawn the ire of St. Paulites who say they preferred choosing their own hauler. Earlier this year, a group of residents filed a lawsuit demanding that city officials acknowledge more than 5,500 signatures on an anti-organized trash petition and put the issue on the ballot.
On Tuesday, Moermond heard the frustration firsthand. Charles Shreffler, who owns a duplex on the West Side, was assessed because of an apparent billing error by his hauler.
The hauler “gets to screw up their billing, and I don’t get to deal with them — I get to deal with the government,” Shreffler said, his voice rising. “And I find it disgusting — infuriating.”
In most cases, Moermond wasn’t able to delete assessments. Fairbanks and others who refused to pay their bills generally accepted that they’ll have to pay assessments, but said they’re still not going to acknowledge future bills.
Moermond was able to nix late fees in cases involving billing errors, but some residents still walked away frustrated.
Zona Butler ordered one trash cart for each of the three properties she owns on the West Side, but received a total of 10 — one for each unit — and had to work with the city to opt out of service for vacant units. Her trash bills had become a tangled mess, and she arrived at City Hall frustrated, a thick stack of paperwork in hand.
After a long discussion, Moermond said she could subtract late fees from Butler’s bill, but she will still owe more than $275.
“You guys are killing cash flows,” Butler said. “There are so many issues here.”
Moermond nodded. “A lot of growing pains.”