Because thousands of St. Paul residents want to trash the city’s new waste-collection system, the whole question is going to the voters this fall. An up-or-down vote on the garbage system will be on the ballot along with all seven City Council seats. And that means garbage disposal could become a major campaign issue.
Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with residents who object to the city-managed organized trash collection (OTC) plan and want it repealed by directing the city to place the question on the Nov. 5 ballot.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued previously, OTC is an efficient and economical way for cities to handle waste. It reduces the number of heavy trucks on the roads, which cuts down on noise, surface damage and emissions. For those reasons, we urge St. Paul residents to vote to stick with the OTC concept.
Nevertheless, St. Paul officials should at some point make adjustments. Opponents have reasonable concerns, and some could be addressed with modifications to the year-old system.
The high court responded to a legal challenge from residents who say the new system doesn’t offer enough disposal options. Opponents collected 6,000 signatures to take the question to a referendum. Some believe that an open system with private haulers provides better service, pricing and options. Some don’t want government interfering with private businesses, and others say that the new system costs more and doesn’t allow them to share pickup bins.
Introduced in October 2018, the current OTC divides the city into several sections and assigns a private hauler to pick up trash for all homes in that section on a single day of the week. It also requires every housing unit to have its own bin, thus eliminating the option to share them. Residents must pay the haulers the rates assigned by the city, and the system prohibits residents from contracting separately with haulers for lower rates.
Changes the city might consider include allowing some flexibility with bin-sharing or rates. Another possibility could be some variation of the Minneapolis system, which uses a combination of city and private haulers and utility-bill payments.
Making any significant adjustments now would likely violate terms of the five-year contract the city has with the haulers, so changes would have to wait at least until after the November vote. If citizens opt to keep OTC, the parties could consider adjustments. If the plan is voted down, then the city might have to honor the contract and pay the haulers. And that, Mayor Melvin Carter says, could cost $27 million annually and lead to a 17% property tax hike.
Justices expedited their decision to allow enough time to get the question on the ballot, withholding the court’s reasoning until later. Carter said he hopes that rationale will offer more guidance about whether a vote against OTC would also nullify the city contract with the haulers.
After the Nov. 5 vote, regardless of the outcome, the city needs to renew its commitment to a system that better meets the needs of residents while also being better for the environment and St. Paul streets.