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What happens if voters toss out St. Paul's trash ordinance?

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Trash carts line an alley in St. Paul.
Trash carts line an alley between Stanford and Wellesley streets in St. Paul on June 5, 2019.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Leading up to Election Day 2019 on Nov. 5, we’re taking and answering audience questions about what’s up for a vote in their areas. Have a local election question? Submit it here!

“I don't really understand the trash hauler situation in St. Paul, and don't know how to vote on that.” — Sarah in St. Paul

Can you outline the consequences of a no vote on the St. Paul trash ordinance? — St. Paul resident

The capital city’s yearslong battle over garbage collection has spilled out recently into public view, including a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling. Here’s a look at what’s happening — and how voters might end the trash talk on Nov. 5.

How did we get here?

Under an arrangement that had been in place for decades, 14 trash collection companies competed to provide service in St. Paul. Some residents say the approach resulted in too many garbage trucks rumbling along streets and alleys.

In 2016, about 2,000 people responded to a non-scientific survey from the city’s public works department — the most feedback ever received by the city's Open Saint Paul website.

City Council members in 2017 approved a plan for coordinated trash collection after years of debate and study. The uniform rate system took effect last year, superseding the longstanding open market system.

Love and hate

The city’s organized zone collection has been praised by some for reducing costs and truck traffic, but opposed by others who say it's unnecessary and more expensive. Some argue it's unfair to require every resident to pay for trash service.

The City Council rejected a move to place a referendum on the ballot in 2018, saying they had authority over garbage collection. Opponents, though, successfully sued to put one of the key pieces of the city’s plan on this fall’s ballot.

What happens if voters say no?

On Oct. 16, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that even if voters reject the hauling system St. Paul still has contractual obligations to the current garbage haulers — the city signed a five-year contract.

So regardless of the voting results, the current system for collecting trash will continue. What will change is how it’s paid for, with the financial obligation shifting from individuals paying the rate to the city’s general fund.

In order to pay, the city may shift some $27 million in garbage bills over to property taxes — that’s a 17.4 percent increase on the current property tax levy. Residents can calculate the impact that would have via a property tax calculator on the city’s website.

According to the city, if residents vote “yes” there will be no changes to the current organized garbage collection program.