July 30, 2008

Los Angeles Raises Trash Fees

By Kerry Cavanaugh

Despite concerns that homeowners already are struggling financially, the Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to hike residential garbage collection charges by 40 percent.

When the new rates take effect Sept. 1, trash pickup will cost $36.32 per month for single-family homes. Owners of small apartment complexes served by the city will pay $24.33 a month.

The council voted 11-1 to impose the fee increase, with Councilman Dennis Zine casting the lone opposing vote.

"This troubles me that in this economic time, we're going to hit the homeowners, we're going to hit the people who are paying exorbitant fees for everything with another trash increase so they won't have the funds to support their families," Zine said.

The council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had argued in the past that trash fee hikes were needed to help the city pay for more police officers.

But on Tuesday Councilman Greig Smith said the city is simply charging single-family residents full price for a service that has been subsidized.

"The council and mayor led people to believe that this was only to pay for police. That was never the case," Smith said.

The city's Bureau of Sanitation collects garbage from single- family homes and some small apartment complexes. Businesses and most multifamily homes pay for private trash pickup.

"You've been getting a gift from this city for 50 years and that's been a great gift to you," Smith said. "I want you to realize that trash collection is a service provided to you that should not be free."

Still, homeowners may be feeling sticker shock after paying just $6 a month for trash pick up in 2003. When bills go up to $36 a month in September, it will mark a 500 percent increase in five years.

Atwater Village resident Dennis Keene said the council isn't considering the impact of all the fees, charges and taxes on residents.

Keene said he paid $639 last year in city charges on his cell phone, landline, cable, natural gas, sewer service, trash collection and electric bills.

The trash fee hike will mean an extra $350 a year for garbage collection, he said, and that's more than the $674 he pays in property tax for the duplex he bought in 1972.

"This type of fee is an end run around Proposition 13," Keene said. "I'm not destitute, but you hear of other people who are barely getting by on their Social Security check."

Los Feliz resident Mark Koval shared the concerns.

"This is the worst possible time to dump this problem on homeowners who are struggling to stay in their homes," Koval said.

"Where do they think people will get all this money?"

With the increase, Los Angeles' trash fee will be among the region's highest. Only six cities charge fees $36 a month or higher, according to a Bureau of Sanitation analysis.

Glendale and Santa Clarita charge less than $20 a month. Torrance, Pasadena and Long Beach charge less than $25 a month.

But Bureau of Sanitation General Manager Enrique Zaldivar said he expects other cities will follow L.A.'s lead in raising fees.

"Enough cities have called us and said, 'We're just waiting for someone to step out in front,"' Zaldivar said.

As a compromise to community concerns, the council endorsed a pilot project to charge people based on how much trash they throw away: The more garbage a household disposes, the higher the bill.

That would allow cash-strapped households to recycle more and cut their bills.

"Trash, like any other utility, should be metered. The ratepayer pays as they go," Zaldivar said.

He promised to select communities for testing by the end of August and he aims to launch the pilot program by the end of the year - assuming he can find reliable technology for trash trucks to weigh a household's garbage and then transmit that information to a billing center.

L.A.'s trash fee has been a sensitive political issue for years now, especially under Villaraigosa.

In 2006, he proposed raising the trash fee to generate money to expand the Los Angeles Police Department force by 1,000 officers.

At the time, Villaraigosa issued a press release that promised: "Every new dollar residents pay for trash pickup will be used to put more officers on the streets."

But a recent review by City Controller Laura Chick found that the trash fee generated $137 million in the first two years - far more than the $86.5 million needed to hire new officers during that same period.

The extra funds were used to pay for officer and civilian raises in the LAPD.

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