Update: Spend $3 million more to pick up San Jose trash, officials recommend
Pine needles, trash and debris near Highway 280 in San Jose contribute to the risk of fires, residents say. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

The mayor and three councilmembers are recommending San Jose dump another $3 million to help clean up the city’s trash problem.

Mayor Sam Liccardo and councilmembers Lan Diep, Dev Davis and Sergio Jimenez announced the idea Sept. 14 amid mounting complaints about the city wide trash buildup.

“There’s no shortage of San Jose property that needs cleaning up and we’re working mightily, yet residents are still feeling like we need to do more,” Diep said.

City teams have been collecting an average of 45 tons of trash per week in encampments and on city streets, according to Olympia Williams, Beautify SJ program manager.

Williams said the additional funding would help achieve the goal to triple that number by ramping up neighborhood clean up programs, reinstating programs that pay homeless residents to pick up trash, adding more dumpsters around the city and deploying teams more quickly to illegal dumping sites.

A memo released by the mayor and councilmembers called for using the funds to hire unemployed contractors and homeless residents to pick up trash in highly trafficked areas.

“We look forward to having a cleaner community because we know that then we will have a better chance of attracting tourists again and new businesses as we recover from the economic fallout from COVID-19,” Davis said.

More people have been dumping their trash on the streets since residents were required to shelter in place, according to Williams.

The city also halted encampment abatements in light of COVID-19, making it more difficult for staff and volunteers to tidy up neighborhoods.

“When you have to pick up loose trash, the job is twice as hard,” said Deputy City Manager Jim Ortbal. Ortbal said having to get dumpsters and trucks to move loose trash from place to place is what makes the efforts so expensive.

Diep said each dumpster used in his district’s community trash pick-up days costs $500.

City leaders have adopted a few strategies as part of the Beautify SJ initiative to confront the accumulation of trash. They have reinstated a program that pays unhoused and formerly homeless residents to collect garbage on city streets. They also recently added new dumpsters near encampments.

Despite these efforts, the city cannot keep up with the mounting piles of trash along Interstate 280, Highway 85 and Monterey Road and in the heart of downtown.

“Work conditions have been anything but easy for the Beautify SJ team,” Ortbal recently told the  City Council, citing the pandemic and worsening air quality from numerous California fires.

The problem is twofold.

First, the city collects $180 million a year in fees from homeowners for trash service. But for residents in homeless encampments there is no regular trash removal, according to Ortbal.

“At over 200 known encampment locations across the city, weekly trash service is probably what is needed to have clean conditions,” Ortbal told the City Council at a recent meeting.

Only 10 percent of encampment locations receive weekly trash pick up and more than half get trash pick up services once a month or less, according to Ortbal.

“When unhoused residents claim as property what many housed residents might consider trash, it limits the effectiveness of clean up,” Ortbal told the council. “We are working with unsheltered residents to keep their areas tidier.”

The second issue is the city is unable to do anything about the trash on certain properties owned by state agencies, such as Caltrans and Union Pacific, because they have different pick-up protocols and regulations, according to Councilmember Johnny Khamis.

“We still have problems with Union Pacific but we used to have a lot more problems because they didn’t clean up the homeless encampments,” Khamis told San José Spotlight. “They didn’t allow us to go on their property to clean up homeless encampments and it took us two years to negotiate with Union Pacific and it took a threat of a lawsuit to do so.”

Khamis proposed creating contracts with Caltrans and other agencies to use existing city employees and resources to help clean up. Who would pay for this is still under discussion, Khamis said.

Caltrans has scheduled one clean up for September, according to Khamis, and has used COVID-19 and the lack of encampment abatement as justification for not clearing the trash.

“My office has sent emails to Senator Jim Beall, who acts as the head of the Transportation Committee for the state of California, and even he couldn’t get something done for us,” Khamis said.

Caltrans did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

San José Spotlight in August reported Caltrans failed to respond to numerous resident complaints regarding dried pine needles and brush near Interstate 280. The dry foliage ultimately fueled a fire that resulted in the destruction of Alexis Cook’s home, reminding city leaders the threat of trash build up goes beyond aesthetic blight.

Khamis and councilmembers Raul Peralez, Dev Davis, Maya Esparza and Pam Foley authored a Sept. 2 memo in support of developing a contract with Caltrans, citing residents’ concerns with trash and debris from the San José Spotlight report.

“Our residents are more concerned with seeing solutions than hearing about our cross-jurisdictional issues,” the councilmembers wrote. “We cannot resign ourselves to inaction on account of another agency bearing technical responsibility. We need to find ways to take action when the responsible agencies are unable or unwilling to do so.”

The idea of the Caltrans contract is being reviewed by city staff and is expected to go before the City Council later this month.

Meanwhile, Ortbal said he expects conditions to improve this fall as more teams mobilize to collect trash more frequently.

The San Jose City Council will further discuss how to budget for the additional three million dollars Sept. 22.

City leaders encouraged residents to use San Jose’s free 311 app if they have concerns related to trash pick up.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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