The city is spending more than $305,000 a year so less than 1 percent of its residents, including a member of Congress, don’t have to push their garbage bins to the curb for pickup.
Now, some Raleigh council members say they want to re-examine the program and qualifications for receiving its services.
“I think we need to make sure we’re administering the program appropriately and fairly and make sure that nobody is getting privileges that they shouldn’t be getting,” Councilman Bonner Gaylord said.
“Do we have it tuned just right? So that just people who qualify are getting the service?” Councilman Russ Stephenson asked. “I’m happy to investigate.”
For years, Raleigh sent its sanitation workers down driveways and into backyards to retrieve bins to dump in garbage trucks, but mostly ended the practice in 2004. The city continued backyard garbage pickup for residents who called City Hall and said they were over 60 years old or couldn’t physically take their trash out.
It was easy to get on the backyard pickup list, said Damien Graham, spokesman for the city.
“You’d call the city and say, ‘I need the service. We can’t do it ourselves,’ ” Graham said.
The city reined in the program in 2009, when the list of backyard pickups was nearing 5,000. All future customers needed to submit a note from a doctor attesting that the resident had a disability and that no able-bodied person lived at the house to move containers to the curb.
The City Council decided not to make the new policy retroactive, and grandfathered in the people who were already on the list. No doctors’ notes were needed.
Raleigh’s backyard pickup list now has 2,400 residents and only half of them have doctors’ notes, according to Graham. The other 1,200 were on the list before the 2009 restrictions. None of the residents pay more for the extra service.
The N&O requested a list of the 1,200 customers grandfathered in. The city declined, citing a 2003 state law that says public utility bills are not public records.
“It may not be that they’re being deceptive,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said of the customers who don’t have notes. “Maybe we didn’t follow through on contacting everybody (in 2009) and asking them to update it. Maybe it is time to update the list and just see.”
A steep driveway
One of the customers who was grandfathered in is 13th District Rep. George Holding, a Republican who’s been on the backyard pickup list since he bought his inside-the-Beltline Flythe Hills home in 2006.
Holding said his driveway is so steep that his wife and children can’t roll the big containers up the driveway to the street. And, as a former U.S. attorney and now a member of Congress, he’s seldom been home during the week to take the trash out.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said.
Holding said he wasn’t looking for any favors and wants to be in compliance with city regulations. Holding is in compliance, according to Graham, the Raleigh spokesman.
A contentious issue
The city’s move in 2004 to end backyard pickup was contentious.
Russell Allen, then the city manager, and a council-appointed task force recommended the switch, estimating it would save the city $3.9 million a year.
The council approved the switch in a 5-3 vote only after Mayor Charles Meeker promised to continue backyard pickup for people over 65, people with disabilities and people who lived on steep driveways or hilly neighborhoods.
“I got a ton of email, and a considerable number of phone calls against it,” said then-councilman Philip Isley, who voted against curbside collection.
The city has 10 small, open-back vehicles called “pup trucks” that it uses for garbage pickup in backyards, at bus stops, around downtown and at special events. The vehicles are also used to collect dead animals, said Terri Godwin Hyman, communications manager for the Solid Waste Services Department. Each truck costs about $90,000.
The trucks are “more cost-efficient for special collections (than the larger trucks) because they only require a one-person crew,” Hyman said. The other option would be to use larger trucks with bigger crews that are used for yard-waste pickup.
A new letter?
Residents in 2010 spoke out in opposition after city officials said sanitation workers sometimes look to see if an able-bodied person lives in a home receiving backyard pickup service.
Councilwoman Kay Crowder said the city should now try a softer approach to getting people off the backyard pickup list. City staff should consider sending letters to the 1,200 residents who don’t have to push their bins to the curb – but don’t have a doctors’ note, Crowder said.
The letter should read “if for any reason you don’t need the service, we can cease it,” she said, adding “thank you for being honest and saving taxpayers money.”
Holding, for his part, said he may find himself off the list now that his daughters are growing.
“I could get my wife a golf cart for Christmas to take out the garbage,” Holding said. “I’m sure my 6-year-old son would like a golf cart, preferably in camo.”