Two days before St. Paul voters say yes or no to organized trash collection, both sides have found something to agree on: This bruising fight goes way beyond garbage.
“I think it is emblematic of a last gasp of a St. Paul that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Javier Morillo, chairman of a Yes For St. Paul committee, about opposition to citywide trash pickup. “In St. Paul, we are used to not needing fancy things, that the way things have always been is fine. This debate has come to crystallize that.”
Tom Goldstein, a former mayoral candidate and spokesman for the Vote No campaign, says people are enraged by the City Council’s decision to block a public vote, despite 6,000 signatures on a petition, until being ordered to do so by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“It has become a referendum on the mayor’s leadership and the City Council’s leadership, because they basically said we’re going to fight you on this all the way to the Supreme Court,” Goldstein said.
On Tuesday, a ballot question will ask whether to keep or scrap the city ordinance establishing organized trash collection. Supporters have praised it for standardizing rates and reducing garbage truck traffic. Others say it has limited their disposal options and hiked their bills. If voters reject trash collection and its quarterly billing system, Mayor Melvin Carter says the city will have to impose a massive property tax hike to pay the haulers, whose contract is still binding.
Morillo and other Vote Yes supporters say the ordinance may be imperfect, but it’s an important early step to addressing much bigger issues, such as climate change and economic equity. A study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed that organized collection could reduce emissions from garbage truck traffic in St. Paul by 70%.
Those urging a No vote say the ordinance is yet another example of City Hall not listening to many of the city’s residents. A good portion of the backlash has been directed at Carter. Last month, officials said the mayor has received threatening and racist messages regarding the upcoming vote.
On Friday, Carter spokesman Peter Leggett sounded a conciliatory tone, in contrast with a year of lawsuits, rallies and acrimony.
“We continue to value the energy and feedback that so many in our community have brought to trash,” he said in a statement. “Just as voters will determine how citywide garbage is paid for when we cast our ballots, St. Paul will continue to be shaped by all of us who are engaged in building the future of our city together.”
The recent disclosure that mega-hauler Republic Services contributed $30,000 to the vote yes effort prompted a fresh flurry of anger on social media. On Friday, Republic issued a statement: “St. Paul’s current garbage collection system means fewer trucks on city streets, less pollution and a cleaner community. As a member of the St. Paul Haulers Consortium, we believe this system is in the community’s long-term best interest, and we gladly support the Vote Yes campaign. We are proud to serve St. Paul and hope to continue doing so for many years to come.”
The move to organize
For decades, generations of St. Paul homeowners were responsible for finding their own garbage haulers. Many negotiated their own rates with small local haulers with whom they’d developed relationships. Unlike Minneapolis, which uses a combination of city-owned trucks and a contract with private haulers to provide citywide service and standard rates, St. Paulites paid haulers directly, often at widely different prices. More than 9,000 households in 2017 had no contract at all with a hauler. Some shared carts with neighbors, took their trash to work, recycled and reduced to the point of being “zero-wasters,” or, in some cases, dumped their garbage illegally.
A decade ago, homeowners in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood started organizing to contract with a single hauler to reduce truck traffic in their alley. At the time, the city had about 20 haulers who served residential customers; homeowners said as many as a dozen trucks rumbled past each week. The idea of organized collection started gaining traction citywide and, in November 2017, the City Council approved a contract with a consortium of 15 haulers and passed an ordinance.
That plan, which standardized rates and assigned a single hauler to sections of the city on a single day of the week, rolled out to more than 70,000 households — from single-family homes to fourplexes — last year.
Even before it started, some lined up to fight it.
Many homeowners didn’t want to see their longtime haulers squeezed out of business, something the plan tried to address by preserving existing market share for all 15 members of the consortium. But bigger haulers immediately started buying up the routes of smaller haulers. St. Paul now has six haulers in the consortium.
Critics also focus on cost. While many property owners pay less than under the old system, others are paying more. To discourage illegal dumping, the plan requires every household to have a cart — including multifamily housing up to fourplexes. That has driven up landlords’ costs.
But what really chafes Pam Tollefson, whose family has lived on their East Side block for 85 years, is that the City Council and mayor fought to keep the question off the ballot.
“What right do you have to tell me that I can’t do this?” Tollefson said. “It’s not about trash. It’s about the fact they forced something on us and ignored the signatures.”
City Council Member Jane Prince, who represents part of St. Paul’s East Side and is also on the ballot Tuesday, said Friday that the Republic contribution to the Vote Yes campaign has sent her into the Vote No camp — especially given haulers’ reluctance to discuss changes.
“I do think it has become a symbol of all the things that people have become frustrated about,” Prince said.
Even supporters of trash collection agree that changes should be made to the contract. But the Vote Yes group says the city will have a better chance winning concessions in the current deal — and forging a better one in four years — if the city and its residents remain engaged with the haulers.
“They want us to undo the ordinance based on a theory that this will give us leverage,” Morillo said. “But if they put this on property taxes and start charging small businesses for this, they are going to be up in arms. You create a big old mess and we start from scratch.”
Jason DeBoer-Moran, who lives in the West 7th neighborhood and whose brother struggled to find a hauler willing to serve his Frogtown home under the old system, agrees that the current ordinance and contract can and will be improved. The City Council will soon vote on lowering garbage rates citywide after ongoing talks with haulers.
“I do think it is about more than trash. This is more about the direction St. Paul is going,” he said. “It’s a start. We all believe we need a good system for the city of St. Paul.”