A deeper dive into St. Paul’s garbage controversy

Facebook/City of St. Paul

Garbage collection generally speaking is not a topic of interest for concerned conversation.  Unless it’s your garbage. 

Then, you want to know that it is regularly collected and, just as importantly, that you are not being overcharged. St. Paul’s November 5 vote to pass Ordinance 18-39 and keep the city’s coordinated garbage collection system, which has been in effect since last year, concluded a hotly contested debate. At stake was how it would be financed. 

Proponents felt passing it meant well-to-do areas of the city would pay their fair share, and the result would mean a more equitable system of garbage collection. Opponents believed it’s not a matter of equity but rather a hardship for them that helps the disadvantaged at their expense.

Over 73,000 residential properties in St. Paul will be serviced by waste removal companies: Advanced Disposal, Aspen Waste Systems, Gene’s Disposal Service, Highland Sanitation, Republic Services and Waste Management.  Before the new system, residents contracted their own trash haulers. 

“Years ago, before the city was so diverse, St. Paul had collective trash pick-up,” explained longtime St. Paul resident Sanna Nimtz Town. “But as the city became ethnically diverse, the politicians of that day decided to leave trash collection to the “open market,” thus forcing some communities of color to pay more.

“The resulting higher costs were reminiscent of the ‘Black Tax’ that affects Black and poor communities by allowing companies and corporations to charge people in those neighborhoods more for everything, usually for no tangible reason, from bananas to a gallon of gasoline,” said Nimtz Town.

The privatized system of garbage collection employed 47 different garbage collection companies, which the city said was clogging traffic and was just inefficient.

“The previous system was inequitable because the Black people and People of Color were newer to St. Paul and were overcharged… They didn’t know what the older residents had been paying, who had inexpensive grandfathered sweetheart deals,” said JaNae Bates of ISAIAH, the church-based social justice and community organizing nonprofit, in an interview with MSR.

According to Bates, a “no” vote would have meant that St. Paul residents would be paying their garbage bill through their taxes. She said that would not bode well for those who live in large apartment buildings since they would likely have the increased taxes passed on to them.

I am grieved that, quite honestly, we’re not really acknowledging that this actually is engulfed in racial inequity.

“For example,” she said, “when we were door-knocking we ran into a group of renters who told us that their landlord has raised their rent by $60 a month. If the ‘no’ vote had won, the landlords of rental properties containing four apartments or more would likely have passed those costs on to their tenants as well.” She pointed out that since the majority of Blacks in St. Paul are renters, it would have had an adverse effect on that population.

Those opposed to a universal system of garbage collection were so incensed with the new system and the fact that it was imposed without their having a say that they sued the City of St. Paul. The suit was brought after the St. Paul City Council rejected a petition by opponents of Ordinance 18-39, which included over 6,000 signatures supporting their opposition. The suit reached the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ordered St. Paul to include it on the ballot in their November election, thus upholding a lower court’s ruling.

About a week before the vote, the League of Women Voters and St. Paul Neighborhood Network sponsored a debate about the issue. Panelists included ISAIAH’s Bates, community activist Elizabeth Dickinson, attorney Tom Goldstein, and former SEIU Union President Javier Morillo. Bates, communications director for Isaiah, said, “There are many folks who are happy with their [garbage collection] bill.”

Photo courtesy of ISAI JaNae’ Bates

Bates recounted that years back, coordinated trash collection worked fine. “As we got more economically and racially diverse, a few politicians got together and decided it would be smart to privatize the system. So, we [Blacks] ended up paying more or were flat-out denied services.”

Goldstein commented, “The spin coming out of [Mayor Melvin Carter’s] office is saying, ‘Hey, there’s nothing we can do. We have to keep this contract in place and we have to pay for it, so we’re going to put it in your taxes.’ Those kinds of threats are why we’re at a point where we have an issue about trash that becomes emblematic of many other things that are going on in the city.”

 “Voting ‘no’,” Goldstein summed up, “means we can fix the contract, and why wouldn’t we all want that?”

 “What grieves me is that we had an unequitable system before and this was an attempt to make it more equitable, but it’s really failing some people.” said Elizabeth Dickinson during the Q&A session.

Bates rebutted, “I’m grieved that you believe there’s no such thing as a collective ‘we.’ And I am grieved that, quite honestly, we’re not really acknowledging that this actually is engulfed in racial inequity.”

As muttered grousing ensued from the audience, Bates continued, “I’m sorry, folks, but it is what it is. When we live in a city where Black people per capita make $14,000 year and White people make $43,000, when we’re talking who are low-income, who are we actually talking about? When White people own property at 68% and Black people own it at 24%, who are we talking about?”

 In her separate interview with MSR, Bates clarified her point that “Racial equity doesn’t happen with one vote or one thing. It hasn’t been rectified, but this is the pathway to have that happen. The trash issue is one of many that we see in the city, but it was also huge and a distraction. Frankly, if you knock on your neighbor’s door and ask, ‘What is your vision for the city?’ I highly doubt the first thing they would say is trash collection,” she said.

“They might [mention] schools, the environment, housing—those are things we want to be talking about, that we don’t do real work and action on. Focusing on trash collection is not something we wanted to be doing.

“By voting ‘yes’, and I’m glad we did, it allows us to have the real conversation that our city deserves. That Black people, quite frankly, are overdue to have.”