By a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, St. Paul voters on Tuesday put a lid on the city’s trash fight by saying “Yes” to continuing the city’s organized trash collection system.
Now, say the victors of a trash war that has roiled the city for the past year, it’s time to turn their attention to more important issues — affordable housing, public safety and climate change.
“If we can take this step together, we can start to really take bold steps together,” said JaNaé Bates, communications director of Isaiah, a faith-based coalition that in the weeks before Tuesday’s vote knock on 7,500 doors, texted more than 20,000 voters and made a “Vote Yes” video that was viewed more than 200,000 times. “This vote was always about way more than trash.”
In a year dominated by complaints about the turbulent rollout of organized trash collection, those who showed up on Election Day to support the citywide service outnumbered opponents by nearly 14,000.
The public’s support for the system also spared the City Council from imposing a massive property tax increase — something they said they would have to do to pay haulers, if voters outlawed the quarterly billing that currently pays for it.
Javier Morillo, chairman of the Yes for St. Paul campaign, said: “It makes me happy … but more importantly it makes me feel hopeful for the future of our city. We have lots of big things in our future and it would have made me sad to have to continue to deal with trash.”
But Tom Goldstein, a former mayoral candidate who helped opponents fight all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, said he doubts the yes vote victory was about anything more than burnishing the reputations of city DFLers who threw their weight behind trash.
“So the city is saying the trash issue got in the way of all these other things? Let’s see in the next year if anything powerful is done,” he said. “Let’s see if the city fixes the streets or addresses housing.”
The trash plan rolled out last year, and approved by the St. Paul City Council in November 2017, was meant to add structure and stability to what had been a do-it-yourself method of arranging solid waste disposal. But it became a knockdown battle on social media and in community gathering spots between those who want the city to modernize vs. those who question St. Paul’s leadership.
Long before the acrimony and vitriol, city leaders introduced the plan to cut truck traffic, pollution and wear-and-tear on streets and alleys, while also standardizing what had for years been wildly varying rates paid by homeowners.
About a decade ago, neighbors in Macalester-Groveland organized to use a single hauler. The idea gained traction, eventually culminating in a city contract with a consortium of private haulers and a new ordinance setting rules and rates.
Commercial properties and larger apartment buildings and condo associations were exempted, allowing them to keep contracts with their own haulers. Organized trash collection for more than 70,000 households hit St. Paul streets in October 2018.
But even before the rollout, opposition intensified.
While homeowners throughout St. Paul welcomed no longer having to shop for haulers and reveled in quieter streets and alleys, others were dismayed at losing longtime local haulers with whom they’d developed relationships. Where some saw their rates drop under the new plan, others — especially landlords and those residents who had shared a cart with neighbors — started protesting significant cost increases.
To discourage illegal dumping, the plan requires every household to have a cart — including multifamily housing up to fourplexes. In all, more than 9,000 households had previously not had a contract with a hauler. Using a provision under the city charter, opponents collected thousands of signatures over several months demanding a referendum on the ordinance. The City Council refused after the city attorney said a referendum was pre-empted by state law prohibiting interference with a contract.
Opponents took the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which in August ruled that the city’s charter indeed required a referendum. Weeks later, the court ruled again, saying that even if St. Paul voters say no to an organized trash collection, St. Paul’s contract with the haulers remains.
Mayor Melvin Carter and city officials have said the only way they can pay the haulers over the next four years is by shifting the cost of trash from billing customers to levying property taxes. The City Council voted 5-2 in September to set the levy limit at 22% so it could bring in enough tax revenue to cover an estimated $27 million for trash collection.
The sheer rage expressed by those who pushed for a no vote caused some to wonder if St. Paul was ready to move on from trash, said Kristina Mattson.
Mattson, a Highland Park resident, voted yes in hope that continued organized collection will soon lead to curbside pickup of organic waste.
“I expected it to be closer. But it’s hard to know when you’re in the echo chamber and people are very loud if it’s indicative of the larger city,” she said. “Ultimately, this vote was about more than trash.”