Garbage fees sowing discord

Gwinnett to bill property owners for trash service starting July 1

Gwinnett County rolls out its new trash plan July 1, requiring people who live in the unincorporated parts of the county to pay for trash pickup whether they like it or not.

If that brings closure to a matter that has electrified debates at public and commission meetings for the past two years, it will be a shock even to supporters of the $53.7 million program that will be paid for almost entirely by garbage fees to the new customers.

In fact, July 1 may just turn up the heat.

Gwinnett supporters of the political activist groups the Four Corners Tea Party, Freedom Works and Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government said Friday they plan a protest June 12 outside the old courthouse in downtown Lawrenceville.

They intend to demand that commissioners reconsider the plan that will bill 185,000 households in unincorporated Gwinnett $321 each for 18 months of trash service. That tab will be included in property tax bills that go out later in July.

“This is tantamount to Obamacare,” said Debbie Dooley, an organizer of the protest. “It’s socialized. It’s the government forcing people to purchase something and that’s unconstitutional.”

But as loud as opposition to the plan has been, it’s hard to get a real measure of how many are actually opposed and how many are in support of the effort, said Mike Royal, who headed five citizens’ meetings about the trash proposal last year.

“I would say, judging on the crowd’s reaction at those meetings, about 80 percent were opposed to it and about 20 percent were in favor,” said Royal. “But you also have to consider that people come out to oppose something, but they don’t generally come out if they support it.”

One of the more outspoken supporters of the plan is Jerry Oberholtzer, the mayor of Snellville whose residents have city trash service which they pay for as part of their property taxes. For years, people outside of Snellville who don’t pay for trash service have been slipping into the city at night and dumping trash in vacant lots and trash bins, said Oberholtzer, who is fed up with it and happy with the new law.

“People think it’s their God-given right to come in here and dump their trash in our city,” said Oberholtzer. “It’s a terrible problem. It costs our businesses money because their Dumpsters get filled up and they have to pay money to rent a larger one.”

It’s gotten so bad, the mayor said, “the other day I was driving down the road and I almost ran over a mattress. I had to swerve to miss it.”

The anger in Gwinnett isn’t just about the county managing the garbage pickup, which will be done by private haulers. According to Sabrina Smith, chairwoman of Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government, the way the County Commission cut the deal is more disturbing.

“It’s OK to have mandatory trash pickup if it’s done in a reasonable manner, but that’s not the way they’ve done it,” said Smith, who faulted the commission for awarding the trash contracts as a way of settling lawsuits filed by haulers in 2009, after the first trash plan was introduced. When the new program was established, contracts were awarded to five private haulers without bids.

“We think competition makes customer service better and will keep prices lower,” said Smith.

Another opponent of the plan, Charles Grizzle, who is affiliated with the Gwinnett chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said he believes the County Commission sold the plan to voters with “red herring” arguments that don’t bear out.

“When they come up with one motivation of why they’re doing this and you shoot that down, then they morphed and came up with another one,” said Grizzle. “They’re not being honest.”

Grizzle said he doesn’t believe the commission’s claims that illegal dumping is a big problem in the county.

“I can’t find another citizen who thinks we have a big illegal dumping problem,” he said. “And they [the commission] have made no effort to quantify it.”

But how big a problem is it?

On Thursday an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter toured illegal dump sites with Randy Franklin, a code enforcement officer for the county who pointed out a few spots where trash — tires, furniture, and household garbage — was piled along roadsides.

“It’s a problem. How big is it, I can’t say,” Franklin said. “But we get calls all the time and about a month ago, I was just taking a shortcut on a dirt road near here and it was almost blocked with trash at both ends.”

Code enforcement officer Keith Colquitt estimates the agency, which employs 13 officers, receives about 10 reports a week about illegal dump sites countywide. Enforcement officers check the site, look for evidence — sometimes a letter with an address will lead them to the culprit, who then will be ticketed by police — then arrange to have it cleaned up.

Depending on the location, either the county or a private landowner picks up the tab.

“If somebody dumps stuff on your property, then you become a victim twice because you have to pay to have it removed,” said Colquitt.

Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett developer who opposes government intrusion into the free market in some cases, is glad the county stepped in. People dumping stuff in his trash containers in Lawrenceville was costing him money.

“We’d find bags of trash there that just sort of showed up overnight,” he said. “Somebody has to handle trash in an organized fashion, if we live in a civilized society where property values are maintained and trash runs down those property values.

“I’m not saying this plan is perfect, but it’s organized.”

Bill Miller lives in unincorporated Gwinnett and pays a private hauler to remove his garbage. He said the law punishes citizens such as him and it won’t do anything to stop illegal dumping.

“If you look real hard at it, you’ll find most of that dumping is construction refuse,” he said. “And you have to pay extra to haul that even under the new law. So the lawbreakers will just continue to break the law.”

He said he’s not sure he’ll join the protest next week. He’s going to save his protest till the fall elections.

“They’ll hear me at the ballot box,” he said. “I think people are going to be voted out because of this.”