The Anoka City Council has thrown out the idea of single-hauler garbage collection after a change in the council’s makeup following the November 2020 election.
The city had been planning to research the topic and put it on the ballot for voters to decide the issue in 2022.
At a work session last month, a majority of the council directed staff to abandon that plan after Council Member Mark Freeburg retired and Council Member Jeff Weaver rejoined the council following a two-year hiatus.
Public opinion on organized hauling is sharply divided, as evidenced by the response when the city sought community input on the topic early last year. At that time a slim majority of the council appeared to favor organized hauling in hopes of slowing the deterioration of city streets. With Weaver’s election, the balance shifted.
A little history
Organized hauling has been a contentious topic for years.
Anoka used to have a single-hauler system but changed to an open system in 1991. The city looked at the idea of returning to a single hauler in 2015 and received vocal opposition from some community members. The City Council at that time voted to cap the number of haulers at three residential and three commercial. But rather than force some haulers out of the city, it decided to limit the number through attrition as existing haulers shut down or were bought out.
Weaver was on the council at the time and agreed with that approach. Mayor Phil Rice also voted for that measure but said he was disappointed the city didn’t do more.
Currently six residential and two commercial haulers operate in Anoka.
The issue of organized hauling came up again in 2019 because the city was spending millions of dollars a year on street reconstruction, and several council members wanted to explore organized hauling as a way to protect its investment in streets. City Manager Greg Lee told the council he had become more confident that the load on the city’s streets was a significant factor in road deterioration.
When the city sought community feedback early last year, it ignited passions again, but opinions varied.
Proponents of organized hauling said reducing the number of heavy trucks would protect the city’s streets from deteriorating as quickly, improve safety, reduce noise, cut down pollution and give the city clout to negotiate favorable prices. They pointed out that the city already has organized recycling collection.
Opponents said the city shouldn’t be in the garbage business and that residents should have the ability to choose their hauler. They worried prices and customer service would suffer under organized hauling, and they said many factors contribute to street deterioration and argued it wasn’t clear that garbage trucks were a primary cause of the problem.
Garbage Haulers for Citizen Choice, a Roseville-based consortium of waste disposal companies, vocally opposed organized hauling in Anoka.
When the council reviewed public feedback on Feb. 24, 2020, city staff said that out of 149 feedback forms the city received, about 40% supported organized hauling, while about 54% opposed it and about 6% were undecided. Mayor Phil Rice pointed out that the feedback wasn’t a random sample, and he believed there were enough strong feelings that citizens would likely petition to put the issue on the ballot if the council made a decision one way or the other.
A majority of council members last year agreed they’d like voters to decide the matter and directed staff to begin the research process with the intent of putting the issue on the ballot in late 2022.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the project fell by the wayside.
Council rejects referendum
This year the subject came up again, but now three council members oppose the concept of organized hauling and decided not to put it on the ballot.
Council Member Jeff Weaver told ABC Newspapers he hasn’t changed his position since 2015.
“I would like to see fewer trucks on the road if it’s possible, but I don’t want it to be controlled by the government,” he said. “I’d like to reduce it through attrition. ... I haven’t changed my position one nickel.”
Weaver doesn’t believe there’s an appetite for more government involvement in people’s lives right now.
Council Member Brian Wesp agreed.
“They don’t want government managing their garbage hauling,” he said.
Both Weaver and Wesp were on the ballot last November and said voters who brought up the issue on the campaign trail mostly opposed organized hauling.
In an email, Council Member Elizabeth Barnett told ABC Newspapers a free-market system is “the best way to keep prices down and service up.” She also said she has observed “through community meetings, city survey results, and constituents reaching out to me directly that public opinion decidedly favored personal choice for garbage hauling.”
But Mayor Phil Rice and Council Member Erik Skogquist were frustrated that the council reversed last year’s decision to have the community vote.
“This all comes down to gathering the information and then putting it out there and letting citizens have a choice,” Skogquist said. “That debate has basically been shut down by the majority of the council.”
Rice said he understands that other council members have their own views of organized hauling and the free market. “The part that I don’t understand is saying, ‘Don’t pursue the education piece of it,’” he said. “I think it is someone’s responsibility to tell the public whether or not this is costing them in other ways.”
Rice is convinced that the weight and quantity of garbage trucks on city streets is destructive and contributes to poor quality roads and higher street maintenance costs that ultimately affect taxpayers. He supports organized hauling. He has said publicly that he believes the question is when, not if, the city will return to a single hauler.
But given the high level of public interest and the strong difference in opinions, Rice felt a referendum was a good compromise. He wanted city staff to get weights of garbage trucks and see whether it could be proven that the trucks are destructive. With that information, he’d let the voters decide.
“That is my position now, that the community should vote,” he said.
But other council members aren’t convinced garbage trucks are a big problem.
“There is an absence of proper peer reviewed science done on this issue that contains repeatable, reproducible results,” Barnett said in an email. “The studies presented so far are flawed and mostly unscientific without proper control groups, variables, or sample sizes.”
She also doesn’t believe spending staff time on research would pay off.
“Since that decision [to put the issue on the ballot], we were provided with details into how the city would study this issue and the significant expense related to this work,” she said. “I do not feel that the scope of the information gathering would provide us with significantly more information than what we have today.”
If the city were to look at the impact of garbage trucks, Weaver said, it would also need to consider other large vehicles, such as delivery trucks.
“There’s a lot of vehicles that use the public streets,” he said.
Wesp acknowledged garbage trucks may damage roads, but he’s not convinced they’re the primary problem, and he believes the city needs to scrutinize other areas, such as the quality of construction and maintenance of its streets.
Weaver and Wesp also said the council shouldn’t put every issue to a community vote.
“The voters put us there to make decisions,” Wesp said, adding that he believes he’s in tune with what the community wants.
Skogquist agreed not everything should go on the ballot, but he said that last year citizens asked for a referendum on this issue.
“When the citizens tell you, ‘This is something we want to have a say in,’ and the council is split and it’s divisive, then sure,” Skogquist said.
He also said the city needs to figure out why its roads are deteriorating more quickly than it would like.
“We as a city can’t afford to build roads every 15 or 20 years, and we can’t afford to have roads that are in terrible shape,” he said. “I don’t think it’s responsible to just write something off based on some idealogical position.”
Skogquist said the city needs to do more to understand why roads are deteriorating and what the city can do about it, whether that means implementing organized hauling, building roads thicker, using concrete, reducing salt use or exploring other potential solutions.
Barnett agreed the city needs to tackle the problem of street deterioration.
“I feel that the issue of street quality transcends the garbage hauling question because we have variability across Anoka between the different contractors using different methods with different materials over the years for both new streets and street repairs,” she said. “I feel it is more prudent to research if we are being well served by our contractors, ever changing industry standards, and materials used before tackling the garbage hauling question.”
Although the council will not put organized hauling on the ballot, if residents want to bring the issue to a community vote, they can do so by gathering signatures from registered voters equal to at least 10% of the number of voters registered in Anoka as of the last regular city election.