By Lloyd Alaban
Tired of the trash piling up around town, San Jose is considering raising fines for illegal dumping. But some say the move could negatively affect low-income residents.
The San Jose City Council will discuss Tuesday whether or not to increase first-offense fines for illegal dumping to $10,000. 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 the third offense.
Under a proposal authored by Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez and Raul Peralez, the duo hopes the fourfold increase in fines will make residents think twice before dumping garbage in places such as parks and homeless encampments.
“Increasing the city’s fine to $10,000 for the first and subsequent offenses sends the clear message that we will no longer tolerate this illegal and harmful behavior, and it establishes serious consequences for those who disrespect our communities by illegally dumping,” Jimenez and Peralez wrote in a memo.
The memo also calls for pushing Santa Clara County to extend its household hazardous waste disposal program, which ends every day at 1 p.m.
Since the two officials authored the memo last month, three of their colleagues—Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Dev Davis and Pam Foley—have shown support for increased fines. Liccardo, Davis and Foley also want to introduce better marketing efforts to inform residents about illegal dumping, including bringing more awareness to the city’s free junk pick-up program.
A 2019 San Jose State University study showed that while 85% of single-family households knew about and used the service, that dropped to just 50% among rental properties.
In recent years, San Jose beefed up its efforts to reduce blight, including implementing a citywide illegal dumping patrol team aided by the city’s 311 app and an 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’s 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 that nearly tripled to 1,583 requests per month afterward.
City reports show that prior to the pandemic, cleaning crews regularly swept 70 hotspots a day, 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 time and money.
Community consensus behind the proposed fine increase is not universal. Resident Taylor Chase says that a potential increase would disproportionately affect lower-income residents and people of color. Instead, Chase advocates for city-approved disposal sites, better outreach to communities of color, garbage resources for the elderly and disabled and monthly volunteer street cleanups.
“If you want to stop the problem, you need to help the people, not punish them,” Chase wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “This is how you will prevent improper waste disposal.”
Some residents such as Jeff Levine, who lives near Roosevelt Park, have long advocated for a stricter fine system to curb illegal dumping.
“The city is doing a lot of things about illegal dumping,” Levine told San José Spotlight. “I hope they continue aggressively funding the litter pick-up programs. Now is not the time to back down.”
Jimenez and Peralez said they recognize how fines can single out poorer residents, and suggested that the council discuss “equitable ways” to implement fines and enforce behavior.
“We are confident that increasing fines, increasing enforcement and rewarding residents who report will complement current efforts to clean our city and finally begin to deter illegal dumping,” according to their memo.
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This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.