City plans to SWEEP up illegal dumping with utility fee

Solid Waste Elimination and Enforcement Program (SWEEP) would charge $1 per month per property to create a crew that would respond to illegal dumping within the city

By Reggie Ellis

VISALIA – Dan Maxey is like most Visalia residents. He wants to live in a city where he can go for a walk on a well-lit, paved bike/pedestrian trail without tripping over trash. The trail nearest to Maxey is Mill Creek and he came to the Jan. 21 city council meeting to share his thoughts on the trail with his elected representatives.

“Right now, on the trail, you might as well be walking along a dump,” Maxey said. “It’s filled with garbage and shopping carts.”

Maxey said he has been doing his part to try and clean up the area. He said he has helped homeless people push shopping carts away from edges of the creek to ensure they didn’t fall in and clog the water ways. He even went so far as calling the city and offering to pay a group of young men to clean up the trail. The city declined due to liability concerns but Maxey said he still didn’t have an answer as to what the city was doing. 

Mayor Bob Link answered the question on behalf of the council: “There is a program called SWEEP which will address the program in the future.”

Solid Waste Elimination and Enforcement Program, or SWEEP, would create 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.

The idea for SWEEP was first introduced to the council by Tracy Robertshaw, neighborhood preservation manager, a year ago. Robertshaw said reports of illegal dumping had been going up every year and more than doubled from 15,000 pounds of trash in 2016 to 35,000 pounds in 2018. 

At the Jan. 6 meeting, public works director Nick Mascia told the council the program would be funded with a $1 per month increase to utility bills within the city. Mattresses, couches, refrigerators and even hot tubs have been dumped into city roadways, trails and waterways. Without an actual department to illegal dumping, Mascia said the problem is costing the city over $200,000 in staff time per year for employees in code enforcement, streets and solid waste to respond to the calls and also takes time away from their primary duties. 

“Multiple departments proposing equipment, vehicles and staff,” city manager Randy Groom said. “They were starting to expand budgets to equip themselves for this.”

Visalia finance director Doreen Nagle said the $12 fee per customer per year would generate $440,000 per year and only operate at an $11,000 loss in the first year due to start up costs. She said her department also looked at a 75 cent fee which would equal $337,000 per year but the city would be never recover from the first year deficit. Nagel said the program could also be increased or downsized depending on funding and need. Under the $1 per month plan, the SWEEP fund would have a balance of a quarter of a million dollars by year three, at which time the council could decide to hire more workers if the problems persist or lower the fee to reduce the staff as needed.

The $440,000 would fund one new full-time supervisor, one full-time maintenance worker, and two part-time employees, down from the four part time employees originally proposed by staff. 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.

Councilmember Phil Cox said residents would label the fee a way for the city to cover the cost of its conversion to a three-can waste system, which has cost the city nearly $6 million, more than half a million over its initial budget. Cox asked how the money will be tracked to prove the revenue is not used to offset the costs of replacing the city’s former split trash cans. 

“If we do this, we don’t spend a dime until the money’s in the bank,” Cox said to staff. 

Nagle said the city would create a new fund for SWEEP that is entirely separate from any other funds.  

Masica said the program would be run similar to the city’s graffiti abatement program, where city crews identify issues early in the morning and then go out and paint over the graffiti before most people go to work. Mascia said the city’s water use enforcement could be the staff used to identify issues early on as they are patrolling city streets every day. 

“We saw tremendous progress with the graffiti program,” Mayor Bob Link said. “If you remove it fast and quick enough it discourages people from doing this. I get more complaints on trash in the community other than the homeless.”

Public works manager Jim Ross addressed the council’s concerns that having a program to remove illegal waste would encourage illegal dumping. Ross said strong enforcement, including taking photos of illegal dumping at homes to identify those responsible, would be key in ensuring the success of the program. Without, Ross said, people will continue to dump items into the roadway that can cause traffic hazards.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian said he wanted to increase the fine because it was creating a public safety problem but also suggested adding a fee if people want to call the city to come pick up large waste items. 

“It’s a better service for our community, especially if we’re going to have these guys out there,” Poochigian said. “It will keep the city clean and help beautify the city.”

Councilmember Greg Collins asked if the SWEEP crew would be overlapping services with other departments and if their work could include highway cleanup.

Mascia said highway work would need to include intensive safety training for liability reasons and would probably not be allowed by Caltrans. SWEEP crews would also not replace the work being done by other departments to remove debris in the roadway, collect shopping carts and pick up trash at city parks, including the city’s ECO program, which employs homeless people to clean up the city. 

“SWEEP will compliment other City efforts and allow staff with other responsibilities to return to their primary duties,” Mascia said.

The council unanimously authorized staff to move forward with the $1 per month per customer fee and initiate the Proposition 218 process. Prop. 218 was a constitutional amendment passed by California voters in November 1996. The initiative prevents local government entities from creating new or increasing existing taxes, fees or charges without a vote by the property owners within the jurisdiction. If one more than half of the property owners submit a written protest against the tax, they can block the tax from taking effect. Nagel said staff is proposing that any action taken by council include an annual consumer price index increase per year but that any increase to the base fee would require an additional Prop. 218 hearing.

Mascia said staff will prepare the noticing of the Prop. 218 hearing in the next three to four months and hold the higher prior to the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year in June. He said the program could be implemented sometime during the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

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