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San Diego trash measure supporters, opponents clash over impacts to competition, low-income people

A lead supporter and lead opponent of a ballot measure that would repeal free trash pickup for San Diego’s single-family homes clashed Friday over how the measure is being described and how it could affect low-income families.

They also disagreed, during a forum organized by the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, about the possible benefits of Measure B locking out private haulers from trash collection at single-family homes, and on whether a city with so many previous financial scandals should be trusted to collect millions in trash fees.

The measure, which could result in roughly $25 monthly charges for single-family homes that previously got trash service for free, comes at a time when many households are reeling from higher costs for gas and groceries, said Haney Hong, chief executive of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

“It’s a tough time,” he said. “It’s incumbent on our public leaders to be sensitive to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of your average San Diegan.”

Councilmember Joe LaCava, who has spearheaded Measure B with Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, stressed that no fees would be collected until 2024 at the earliest. He also suggested the council may delay any increase if inflation hasn’t softened by then.

The measure would also raise at least $50 million per year in new revenue for San Diego that could be spent on programs to help boost low-income families and neighborhoods, LaCava said.

Hong said another flaw in Measure B is that it would lock in city crews as the exclusive trash haulers for single-family homes, preventing San Diego from potentially shifting that work to private haulers in the future without another public vote.

“I’m not saying that the public is better or the private is better, but what I will say is that competition makes everybody better,” Hong said.

Giving city crews an essential monopoly eliminates the downward pressure on trash fees that would come with competition, he said.

LaCava pointed out that state law requires the city to charge no more than it costs to provide trash service, whereas private haulers have the power to charge more — whatever the market will allow.

“Competition doesn’t always play itself out the way that folks think,” he said.

He also said it would be disruptive to replace city crews with private haulers, noting that San Diego recently bought dozens of new trash trucks and hired many new drivers to comply with a new state organic waste recycling law.

“I’m confident they’re delivering the best service and the best price going forward, and that’s why I think competition is not the right answer for good governance,” LaCava said.

Hong said it’s hard to trust San Diego to start collecting millions for trash service, after years of billing problems in the city’s Water Division and several other scandals.

Those include the city’s underfunding of its employee pensions 20 years ago, earning San Diego the nickname “Enron by the Sea,” and its troubled 2016 acquisition of the office tower at 101 Ash St. in a deal that has been tied up in court fights since.

LaCava said city leaders have learned from past mistakes and that officials responsible for those scandals are gone.

“The people who made those decisions are no longer in decision-making processes,” he said. “We have a whole new generation of individuals that are extremely sensitive to what the past looks like and how we are still burdened by that.”

Hong and LaCava also disagreed about whether Measure B is being accurately described by supporters, and whether the description on the ballot is clear enough.

The language on the ballot doesn’t mention fees, instead asking whether the city should be able to recover the cost of trash and recycling so that all city residents can receive comparable service.

Critics say that language intentionally obscures the fee increase for single-family homes, which is a virtual certainty if the measure passes, to avoid losing support from them.

LaCava said news coverage has helped people understand that Measure B will mean new fees for trash service at single-family homes.

“The word is definitely out there,” he said. “The average voter understands exactly what the meaning of this is and the intent of this is.”

Hong said supporters also exaggerate how unique it is for a city to provide free trash service, pointing to other large cities such as New York, which picks up trash from all homes citywide.

LaCava said San Diego is unique in providing free trash service to one group — single-family homes — but charging nearly everyone else.

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