By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
Four years after Margey Meyer hauled a garbage can full of 6,000 petitions before City Council, she still hasn't gotten what she wants: payback for city trash services not rendered. Meyer, who runs a company that manages town house and condominium associations, has been dubbed "trash lady" by colleagues. And now she's really down in the dump(s).
Meyer has waged a memo-war to include town house and condominium complexes in the city's "trash sponsorship program," which reimburses some communities that use private trash pickup.
When City Council voted down a $4 million proposal to expand trash sponsorship on June30, she went into a particularly frenzied memo-flurry. The target of her ire is Mayor Lee Brown, who advised Council to reject the $4million. She says he reneged on a 1997 campaign promise to include condos and town houses in the program.
At a campaign stop before the Houston Community Associations Institute, Brown said, "I will sign an agreement with you to get that done." Then he referred to his mayoral race opponents who had served on City Council. "At least three of ushad a chance to do it, and it hasn't been done." In a publication, Brown later made a similar pledge to expand the trash program. However, that may work out to as much as a $25 million commitment.
Jay Aiyer, Brown's chief of staff, insisted that the mayor's campaign rhetoric was not meaningless garbage. He said Brown is simply waiting for necessary studies by the city's legal, solid waste, and planning and development departments to determine the impacts. Until then, no one knows how much to expand the program or how much it will cost, Aiyer said.
Extending the trash sponsorships just to town homes and condos and not including other residences such as apartments, which are considered commercial properties and are not usually eligible for trash pickup could "open up a whole can of worms," Brown's aide said.
"We need to look at this for everyone," said Aiyer. "If you extend it to group A, and not B, C or D, you open yourself up for litigation, or create another inequity."The trash sponsorship program, started in 1980, was meant to end the "inequitable arrangement" in which residents of some Houston subdivisions were charged twice for trash pickup. If a community used a private trash company instead of the city service, the homeowners association or civic organization charged their residents trash fees. But residents still paid for city pickup through property taxes.
Using the sponsorship program, the city reimbursed these communities up to $6 per month for each household. This reimbursement, however, applied only to residences on public streets, which excluded some town home and condominium complexes.
In 1985 City Council modified the ordinance to allow private complexes to collect $6 monthly from the city for any of its residences that fronted a public street. The criteria for the program, which now include 55,000 residences, have remained the same for the past 14 years.
However, the number of private streets within the city limits, and homes on those private streets, has shot up since then. Estimates place the number of private-street residential units condominiums, town homes and single-family residences at 100,000.
"The U.S. Postal Service provides mail, the fire and police departments provide service, the city water and sewer department provides service, but Waste Management thinks they should not," John Anderson wrote to Brown. He has lobbied the city to extend the sponsorship to private neighborhoods such as his Stonebrook Village gated community. "I think the bottom line is: I'm a homeowner, I pay property taxes I should be entitled to the same services as all Houstonians who own homes and pay property taxes."
So far, most pushers of trash sponsorship-expansion have been private-street residents. But the apartment industry, according to Brown chief of staff Aiyer, has also developed interest in the program. So the city is studying as a kind of a worst-case scenario how much it would cost to absorb all residences into the trash sponsorship program, by either handing out the $6 monthly reimbursements or providing city trash service.
Preliminary figures for that citywide scenario show that the $4 million proposal that City Council rejected would fall far short of covering full expansion. Despite a lack of firm numbers, Solid Waste Department director Everett Bass estimated that adding all private-street residences and apartment complexes to the sponsorship program would cost the city $25 million.
"Folks who live in private town homes or gated communities with private streets they know what they're getting," said Annise Parker, one of the councilmembers who voted to refer the issue for study. But she concedes that making those owners pay twice is unfair.
"We have an absurdity in the law where if you're renting a home and not paying property taxes, then you get your trash picked up. But not if you're in a condo," said Aiyer. He doesn't know why the creators of the trash sponsorship program excluded nonpublic street residences. But he says the program remains that way simply because no one has changed it.
Councilmember Jean Kelley voted for the $4million in the budget meeting. "We're supposed to take care of the basic needs," she said. "And garbage is a basic need."