Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s famously irreverent daughter, had a small cushion made for her sofa on which was embroidered, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.” St. Paul should have a similar slogan: “If you’re looking for a fight, come live here.”
I am a St. Paulite, born and raised. So why can’t my town get its act together? A controversy over, of all things, trash collection is just the latest example of a community that’s bound and determined to shoot itself in the foot.
As a staunch individualist who nonetheless supports the Green New Deal and has reduced her carbon footprint to the size of a thumbtack (that includes trash), and who thinks for obvious reasons that organized collection is long overdue, I was stunned when a district judge declared in May that our new, multimillion-dollar, single-hauler system borderline is illegal and called for a citywide referendum on the matter. (On Thursday, he stayed his order suspending the new system as of the end of June, pending the city’s appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. But if the appeal fails, the Nov. 5 referendum is still to occur.)
This is populism run amok. It is also profoundly undemocratic, despite the dissidents’ claims to the contrary. In his initial order, the judge either forgot or simply ignored the fact that City Council members and the mayor are elected representatives of we-the-people, not some left-leaning cult or right-wing junta, and that they are entrusted by law to protect the greater good.
But first, some background for those of you who just assume everyone has a sensible system like that in Minneapolis, with one hauler collecting not just trash but also recycling and even yard and food waste. St. Paul’s new system doesn’t go nearly that far. We still have separate service for recycling. But it’s a vast improvement over the old regime, which dispersed dozens of haulers in a scattershot pattern according to the whims of the marketplace. In my own neighborhood, as many as seven trucks a day (not counting that of Eureka, a zero-waste organization) rumbled up and down ancient streets that are literally collapsing under their weight.
Add to that the issues of noise, air quality and wasted fuel in a time of climate breakdown, and what you have is the classic no-brainer.
The furor over trash began when a few noisy naysayers gathered signatures from some 7,000 other disgruntled residents whose complaints are as diverse (read: incoherent if not downright contradictory) as the neighborhoods they represent. It was, of course, no surprise to city officials that kinks would have to be ironed out, and that among these kinks would be inconsistent bin pricing and spotty service. But the shrillest gripes were about being deprived of sharing a bin with an eco-conscious neighbor. Never mind that the city’s overall carbon footprint is radically reduced by the new system.
None of the reporting I’ve read has mentioned that the two organizations formed to fight the system make odd bedfellows. St. Paul Trash is all about free enterprise and saving small private haulers. St. Paul CARTless is all about saving the planet from precisely the same free-enterprisers who are now their improbable allies. CARTless, as the name implies, believes that a more efficient (and vastly less polluting) system will only encourage people to create more trash.
As to free enterprise, that city officials did their best to keep hauling in local hands didn’t prevent the conspiracy theorists from suggesting otherwise.
“Lack of communication may have been the biggest screw-up,” an off-the-record source close to the rollout said. “We just didn’t see this coming. We should have. St. Paul is one of the more litigious cities in the country.”
These 7,000 petitioners incensed about trash, many of them residing in the same household as other signers, convinced the judge that they spoke for the majority in a city whose 250,000 residents live in 73,000 households. So, yeah, St. Paul is pretty darn litigious.
I asked my off-the-record source why among the companies that remained in a consortium that originally numbered 15 were global giants, specifically Waste Management and Republic, whereas the company most vociferously opposed to the new plan, family-owned Ken Berquist and Son, is no longer in the trash business. My source replied that local politicians didn’t cause the exit of Berquist and Son. The small haulers who chose to close their businesses were enticed by lucrative buyout offers.
As to why giant companies were allowed to invade our turf to begin with, the answer is globalization and free trade. A global economy inevitably creates monopolies that end up managing governments so as to defend their interests, instead of governments regulating them. The only barriers remaining are state and local governments.
Indeed, in an effort to level the playing field in favor of the small haulers, each consortium member was given equal weight in the negotiations that decided which hauler would handle which routes, the whole point being to reduce the number of trucks crisscrossing the city redundantly. Focusing on a single neighborhood is good for everyone involved. It saves haulers time and money, too.
That some small haulers opted to sell out to the big guys wasn’t Mayor Melvin Carter’s fault. The little guys nevertheless jumped on the anti-government bandwagon. They felt aggrieved despite the nice payday, they said, because the new arrangement put a cap on their growth prospects. It set in stone who would get how big, and while the giants can afford to expand their territory across state and national boundaries, a small business can’t.
The private haulers used this grow-or-die defense despite the fact that it does not apply in this case, by their own testimony. The old setup had its own limits to growth. If there’s a problem (and in my opinion the concentration of power and wealth globally is a big problem), it can be solved only at the federal level, if it can be solved at all.
Another troubling byproduct of the grow-or-die fallacy is demonstrated by trash itself. The production of more and more disposable goods is essential if a company means to stay in business for the long haul. We’ve created a vicious circle, in other words. The amount of trash we produce demonstrates why bigger is, in fact, worse for the future of the planet and, as it turns out, the human race.
It is a supreme irony that our town was named one of America’s most livable midsize cities by Forbes magazine in 2015. What used to be an attractive feature, affordable housing, is now under assault by soaring property taxes and constant rate hikes. My contractor paid just $14,000 for a permit to tear down an existing house and replace it with a fancy new one, whereas the permit I pulled for a 300-square-foot accessory dwelling unit (ADU) cost $7,000, in part because “we don’t know how much additional water you’ll be using,” a friendly city planner explained.
Doesn’t my water meter show that? And shouldn’t those who have been encouraged by new ordinances to expand the city tax base by adding short-term rental properties be incentivized instead of punished?
Such imbalances feel random and desperate. If St. Paul is broke, it’s not because of organized hauling or ADUs, both of which initiatives were intended to lower property taxes. It’s because its major nonresidential property owners are government and nonprofit organizations that operate in the capital city tax-free. And because our previous mayor made bad deals with the likes of Minnesota United soccer team owner William McGuire: Build a shiny new sports palace and we won’t make you pay taxes … ever … again.
All this begs for a conversation about whether St. Paul is really a city at all, or more appropriately a suburb of Minneapolis. Just as single-hauler trash collection is a sensible long-term decision, so would be the elimination of redundancies in our two cities’ infrastructure — yes, I am referring to things like the City Council, the mayor, police and fire departments, and the superintendent of schools. If one of each served both communities, our town’s property taxes wouldn’t necessarily decline but there would be far less opportunity for scapegoating something eminently sane, like organized trash collection, over all the other frustrations, like potholes and rising crime rates and unfair tax and zoning decisions caused by short-term desperation because the city needs money now.
Just as companies merge to create efficiencies and reduce redundancies, so should cities. Instead we are threatened with the spectacle of 21st-century citizens of the richest country in the world dumping their trash in the streets.
Don’t laugh. If the current collection system is suspended before year’s end, St. Paul’s property taxes could rise again to compensate for uncollected fees, and the many millions spent on planning and infrastructure will be lost. Moreover, there’s no easy route to reconstructing a system that’s largely been dismantled. Most likely, the giant haulers will just get bigger and city officials’ exhaustive efforts to include the little guys fair and square will have been for naught.
Bottom line: In the event that the trash question appears on the Nov. 5 ballot, we-the-people are honor-bound to know more about trash than the City Council and the mayor combined, so as to, presumably, make a more prudent and equitable decision than they did.
I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, specializes in environmental topics. She’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.