Illegal dumping in San Jose could soon cost $10,000
Trash is piled up along Coleman Avenue in downtown San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Throwing a mattress by the side of the freeway or a bag of trash on a city sidewalk could soon cost $10,000.

A pair of San Jose officials want to crack down on illegal dumping by quadrupling fines residents would face if they’re caught. Right now, fines begin at $2,500 but they could start at $10,000 under the new proposal.

“We’re just quite frankly fed up with the level of dumping that’s going on around the city,” said Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, who along with Planning Commission Vice Chair Rolando Bonilla, is proposing the new legislation. “We need to up the stakes a little bit for folks who are doing this.”

Currently, the city has three levels for illegal dumping fines: $2,500 for the first offense, $5,000 for the second offense and $10,000 for a third offense. Under ‘ Bonilla and Jimenez’s proposal, the city would eliminate the tier system and instead make all fines for illegal dumping $10,000. The duo is hoping that the fourfold increase in fines will make residents think twice before piling on garbage in places like parks and homeless encampments.

“To me, the tiered system sends a very mixed message,” Bonilla told San José Spotlight. “One offense is egregious enough. If you want to come into our neighborhoods and turn them into illegal dumping grounds, you will be fined $10,000 every single time.”

The city in recent years has beefed up its efforts to reduce blight, including implementing a citywide illegal dumping patrol team aided by the city’s 311 app and illegal dumping hotline that allows residents and businesses to report trash pileups. But with most city operations shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, illegal dumping has grown, and there has been less staff to take care of it.

The city averaged 543 monthly requests to clean up illegal dumping sites before the launch of the app in 2019, but they nearly tripled to 1,583 requests afterward.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, city cleaning crews regularly swept 70 hotspots a day, city reports show, though San Jose has identified more than 160 trouble sites around the city.

Since the pandemic began, only 25 of the city’s most common dumping grounds—sites with 13 or more clustered illegal dumping incidents—are being cleaned in an effort to save money and time. But residents are fed up with piling trash and blight, especially as dumpers have gotten more brazen during the pandemic and illegal trash incidents have increased around their neighborhoods.

That’s led some residents, including Jeff Levine, who lives in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, said he’s personally witnessed housed residents dump their trash in his neighborhood’s homeless encampments to get around dumping trash legally. He said despite the city’s efforts, he hasn’t seen as big of a decrease in illegal dumping as he would like—even with high-tech proposals like cameras near dump sites.

“It’s much easier to call in and get large items taken away for free,” Levine said, referring to the city’s free large trash item pick up, along with the city’s 311 app. “Has that made a dent? I don’t know.”

Levine said he’s hopeful that increasing fines, along with providing a dashboard to keep track of illegal dumping hotspots in real time, to residents, will reduce dumping. He said he and his neighborhood association have been lobbying the city for such a dashboard, so residents can see what happens after an illegal dump incident is called in.

“I’m for increasing fines, as long as they (the city) utilize it,” Levine said. “If they just put it out there and it’s never enforced, then it’s worse than useless.”

Jimenez said his proposal, along with greater education about resources for legal dumping and technology, such as surveillance cameras, will greatly reduce illegal dumping. He points to a similar proposal that levied fines for illegal fireworks last year as an effective example. He will introduce the proposal to the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee next Wednesday.

Should the committee approve the item, it will be heard by the full City Council at a later date.

“Some folks won’t care about the fine, and they’re going to do what they do,” Jimenez said. “But that can’t be the guide to implement this. We’re hoping this is one piece of the puzzle to get folks to do the right thing.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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