Visalia City Council talks trash about illegal dumpers
City discusses $1 per month increase to solid waste service to fund special unit to clean up illegal dumping
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Visalia’s streets are being trashed. There are refrigerators overturned in alleyways. Drywall plastered across neighborhoods. And even hot tubs plopped in the middle of the street.
Those were the images shared by Tracy Robertshaw, neighborhood preservation manager, at the Jan. 22 Visalia City Council meeting. Robertshaw said reports of illegal dumping have been going up every year over the last three years and the amount of trash cleaned up by the city has more than doubled from 15,000 pounds of trash in 2016 to 35,000 pounds in 2018.
“The problems are getting bigger and the staff size remains the same,” Robertshaw said.
In order to combat the problem, Robertshaw proposed a $1 per month increase to household utility bills to fund the Solid Waste Elimination and Enforcement Program, or SWEEP, a dedicated team to address ongoing trash cleanup throughout the city. Each SWEEP employee will be assigned an area of the city and will be responsible for keeping that area clean. They will also look for evidence of who/where the items came from so that information can be provided to the supervisor for illegal dumping citations to be issued. Additionally, the violator will be billed for staff time for the clean-up costs. All citation and cleanup money collected will be returned to the SWEEP account. The team will proactively seek out problem areas but will also respond directly to citizen complaints as well as reports from City employees.
Robertshaw said the SWEEP team would operate similarly to the graffiti team, with early morning patrols to identify blight which can be cleaned up prior to people leaving for work. The team would also reduce the amount of time other City departments are diverting time from their actual job duties, such as maintaining parks, trailways, streets, irrigation repairs, code enforcement, etc. to address the solid waste issues. During budget discussions in March, Robertshaw said several departments expressed the need to add employees in the general fund to cover the duties that are being completed.
“Some departments even requested different vehicles in order to accommodate this work that is not part of their normal duties, but which they feel obligated to address,” Robertshaw said in her report.
The $12 per customer per year would generate revenue of $480,000 per year to fund four hourly positions, one fulltime position and a fulltime supervisor. The money would also be used to purchase five code enforcement trucks with lift gates, a trailer, and some equipment, such as hand tools and computer tablets.
Councilmembers were sympathetic to staff’s concern, but most of them were not sold on the need for passing on the cost to every resident to pay for the few perpetrators.
“I got a lot of calls from people that said this looks like another tax,” Mayor Bob Link said.
Before the city could implement any additional feels for solid waste collection, state law requires customers be given an opportunity to protest the increase. Under Proposition 218, all customers would be provided with a 45-day notice of a public hearing where they could organize a formal protest off the fee. If a majority of the 40,000 homeowners in Visalia submitted a valid, written protest than the tax could be struck down.
Robertshaw said the city would lose money for the first two years of the program but end the 2021-22 fiscal year with an estimated surplus of $113,500.
Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen suggested a sunset clause so that the tax didn’t outlive its usefulness and asked how the city would spend the surplus in the third year.
Councilmember Brian Poochigian, who co-chaired the city’s annual Public Opinion Survey, said litter has become a bigger issue for residents over the last three years trailing only homelessness, public safety, parks and roads.
Councilmember Phil Cox was not opposed to the idea but the cost of the idea. He said the $1 per month increase amounts to $480,000 per year to address an issue that is often a side effect of homelessness, something the city already spends millions on. He said
“I don’t see this as a step in the right direction,” Cox said. “Half a million dollars and we haven’t taught anyone to take pride in their community.”
Instead of using a $1 per month increase to fund two full-time employees, a part-time employee and buy five new trucks with lift gates, Cox suggested a 25 cent increase per month to fund a part-time employee and one new truck that could focus on trouble areas in the city.
Cox motioned for staff to return with a more in-depth report looking at a scaled down version of the plan and answering questions raised by council. The motion was seconded by Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen and passed 4-1. Collins, who supported the idea but wanted to couple it with heftier fines was the lone dissenting vote.
“Make the fine $1,000, prosecute them for littering and make them pay for the clean up,” Collins said. “Word would get out this is not a wise thing to do.”
Nelsen countered, “For fines you have to be able to see them and they will do it at night when you’re all asleep.”
Staff will return with a second report at a future council meeting and ask the council to authorize $20,000 of the solid waste budget of fund an engineer’s report explaining why and how the proposed fee increase meets the requirements of Proposition 218. The report would be available for review prior to the 45-day notice period of the protest date.