What a Waste 

Oakland has launched a crackdown on illegal dumping, but the effort doesn't address the needs of many city residents, and it's not sustainable.

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"These are taxpayer dollars that we are spending on picking up garbage," added Kristine Shaff, public works spokeswoman. "This is taxpayer money that we could be using for so many other things. This is like throwing away money."

Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful — the public works arm that oversees illegal dumping — could spend its resources on other work, like graffiti abatement, street sweeping, weed management, and more, said Frank Foster, operations manager. At the departmental level, funds diverted to illegal dumping could be better used for pothole repairs, road maintenance, and larger street projects, public works officials said.

Oakland has tried — and mostly failed — to curb illegal dumping for years with a range of marketing campaigns, cleanup initiatives, and enforcement programs. In 1992, the city council approved funding to create dedicated crews to remove debris and mitigate illegal dumping. And in 2001, Oakland established a so-called Litter Enforcement Program that included eight litter enforcement officers, or LEOs, trained to conduct enforcement and outreach, backed by a $500,000 state grant. "They had a special patrol," recalled Preston Turner, who represents the Melrose High Hopes Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council.

It seemed promising at first. Oakland identified dumping "hot spots" and reduced garbage in those areas with enhanced lighting, signage, fencing, and targeted enforcement. Between 2002 and 2006, according to a 2007 Public Works report, the city logged 2,284 cases of illegal dumping, which added up to more than $2.1 million in fines. The city, however, dismissed nearly four hundred of those cases, totaling more than $460,000 in potential fines. And while city officials billed violators for a total of $1.7 million, Oakland only collected a little more than $200,000 during that period. Meanwhile, the cost of illegal dumping to the city during that time frame — which included personnel, equipment, disposal fees, and more — was $5.1 million each year.

Simply put, a large majority of the reported investigations into specific cases of illegal dumping resulted in no tangible payoff for the city.

The city has a number of explanations for why it has been unable to collect on illegal dumping fines over the years. The public works report stated that many of the offenders cited didn't own property upon which the city could levy financial penalties. Illegal dumping incidents "are among the least viable in terms of collectability," the report said, noting that partial recovery is common due to "lack of asset value or inconsistent employment." (Some dumpers may be homeless, the City Attorney's Office pointed out). Additionally, the reported stated: "If these debts can be successfully collected, they typically take four years or longer to be paid." And based on total tonnage collected, only around 3 to 5 percent of dumped material can be tied to a source, according to the report.

"I'm not sure if the approach was analyzed fully and thought through," said English of public works. "The ultimate factor that caused the LEOs to go away was the ineffectiveness of collection."

But Foster, operations manager of Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful, said that the presence of these officers had a positive impact, even if the fine collection did not work. "It showed that there was some enforcement out there, so the citizens saw it."

Parker, the city attorney, added, "Everybody that we collect from is more money in our coffers." The City Attorney's Office also has limited resources and has weathered substantial budget cuts in recent years. "Because we don't have enough person power, we set priorities," she said.

In advance of the new ordinance, the city attorney launched a pilot program to begin ramping up enforcement. Since May, the office has issued more than thirty citations and has about a dozen more in the works.

None of the offenders, however, have paid. And the City Attorney's Office said it is close to reaching settlements with a few of the violators, but does not yet have specific details on when — or how — it will move forward with illegal dumping fine collections.

Oakland's new legislation, co-sponsored by Parker and McElhaney, elevates illegal dumping to a misdemeanor violation of city code (as opposed to an infraction) and establishes a category of "major violations," which includes harmful waste matter, upholstered furniture, electronic waste, and more. In determining penalties, the City Attorney's Office has discretion to consider a variety of factors, including cleanup costs, quantity of the waste matter, the violator's history of dumping, along with the "net worth of the person."

The city plans to charge illegal dumpers $1,000 a day for every day the blight continues. If a dumper leaves behind multiple large items, each one would be treated as a separate violation, meaning an individual who left three mattresses on the street for three days would potentially face a fine of $9,000. The law additionally expands liabilities so that parents could be held accountable for the actions of their children, vehicle owners could be responsible if their cars are used in the act, property owners could be liable for their tenants' dumping, and residents who give their materials to illegal haulers could also face penalties. Cars could be impounded. In some cases, the city could allow defendants who can't pay fines to instead do community service. The ordinance also gives the city council the option of establishing some sort of "reward fund" for individuals who provide evidence that leads to prosecution. The city already encourages residents to report illegal dumping and take photos and videos when it is safe to do so. Residents can log complaints through a mobile app called SeeClickFix and online and by phone with public works. If dumping is in progress, residents can call the police non-emergency line.

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