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What’s fair? What’s free? The questions driving San Diego’s Measure B battle over trash pickup

Questions of how to make San Diego’s trash system fair and what constitutes a free city service have taken center stage in the battle over Measure B, which would allow San Diego to start charging single-family homeowners a monthly fee for trash pickup.

Supporters say the ballot measure is all about fairness, stressing that the city’s two-tiered trash system forces businesses and residents of apartments and condos to pay private haulers to pick up their trash, while single-family homeowners pay nothing beyond their property taxes.

“The bottom line is that we have given an exclusive benefit to single-family homeowners,” Councilmember Joe LaCava, a leading proponent, told The San Diego Union-Tribune this week. “This lack of fairness is what we’re really focusing on.”

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Critics of Measure B generally don’t dispute that the two-tiered system is unfair, but they say a better solution than a new fee for single-family homes would be expanding no-fee service by the city to condos and apartments — allowing them to stop using private haulers.

“Trash pickup is a public good that keeps things safe and sanitary, so every resident should get it without a fee,” said Haney Hong, a leading critic and chief executive of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “The taxpayers association concurs the system is not fair right now, but Measure B is not the way to fix it.”

Extending San Diego’s trash pickup service to apartments and condos would significantly increase the city’s costs beyond the $60 million it now spends annually.

Only about 53 percent of residents receive the no-fee service, so the city’s costs could theoretically almost double. But it’s more efficient to collect from apartments and condos because they are closer together, so the increase would likely be somewhat smaller.

Hong’s proposal would not extend no-fee trash pickup to businesses, which would continue to pay private haulers.

The campaigns have also focused on whether the no-fee trash pickup the city provides to single-family homes should be called “free.”

The Union-Tribune and other news organizations often call the service free to single-family homeowners because those residents don’t get billed for trash service, whereas condos and apartments do.

But both supporters and opponents of Measure B take issue with the term because trash service is paid for by the city’s general fund, which gets about one-third of its money from local property taxes.

“The property taxes we pay go to the general public good,” Hong said. He added that no one refers to other services covered by taxes, such as firefighting, as something people get for free.

He suggested descriptions of the two-tiered system should focus on apartment residents and condo owners paying twice for trash, once with their property taxes and again with their monthly bill from a trash hauler. “Some folks are being double-charged, so let’s eliminate the double charge by extending the city service to apartments and condos,” he said.

While LaCava and Hong are on opposite sides of Measure B, they share an aversion to the word “free” being applied to trash pickup.

“’Free’ seems to be a little bit of a trigger word,” said LaCava, suggesting some single-family homeowners become hostile to Measure B when their trash service is described that way. “Because people pay property taxes for services, we like to say people get trash pickup for no additional cost.”

LaCava noted, however, that it’s hard to argue property taxes are enough to support trash service and the many services the city provides, which are also funded by sales tax, hotel tax and other revenues.

The general fund gets just under $700 million in property taxes annually, but the city spends even more than that — about $900 million per year — on just police and firefighting.

Supporters of Measure B also argue that giving all residents free trash service would prevent the city from creating environmentally friendly “pay as you throw” programs that offer residents discounts for producing less trash.

Hong suggested his proposal could solve that problem by cutting the free service off at a certain amount of trash, with residents charged for any trash beyond that.

Returning to the fairness argument, some critics say it wouldn’t be fair to start imposing a trash fee on single-family homeowners with lower incomes — or those who are retired and live on fixed incomes.

Supporters say any new fees for single-family homes would include exemptions or reductions for anyone who demonstrates financial hardship.

A poll conducted last month found more San Diegans supported Measure B than opposed it, but support dipped sharply when people were told the measure might mean new fees for single-family homeowners.

Support outpaced opposition 35 percent to 21 percent before likely voters were told about potential fees in the poll, which was conducted by SurveyUSA for the Union-Tribune and 10News. But an even greater share of likely voters — 41 percent — were undecided at the time.

Once respondents were told the measure could result in monthly bills between $23 and $29 for single-family homeowners, 45 percent of likely voters said they were less inclined than before to support the measure, and 27 percent said they were more inclined to support it.

The financial analysis of Measure B in voter guides lists a cost to residents of $23 to $29. But monthly bills would almost certainly be somewhat higher than that range.

That’s because an analysis by the city’s independent budget analyst didn’t account for increased service levels, such as free trash bins and more frequent recycling pickup.

A new state mandate requires San Diego to extend green waste service to all households and to pick up recycling once a week instead of once every two weeks. And Measure B would guarantee free trash bins, which the city does not currently provide.

Another concern raised about Measure B has been who receives trash pickup from the city. While city officials say it generally goes only to single-family homes, some apartments and condos with street access also get the free service. City officials haven’t analyzed how many homes fall into this category.

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