A Not So Clean Sweep

When people ask me how I like being on the Council, I tell them it’s great, in large part because there’s so much to learn. Having to grapple with issues that are new to me is fun because it’s challenging. Hardly a meeting goes by that I don’t come across an interesting issue, often hidden inside something that looks mundane.

Take this Monday’s meeting. Specifically, whether or not to approve a contract to have our streets swept.

That would seem pretty straightforward…until my colleague Matt Grocott pointed out the contract was funded as part of the garbage collection fees the City charges homeowners and business owners.

Depending on how you look at it that may be either reasonable or unreasonable. Garbage collection directly serves each resident or business by picking up their trash. Street sweeping, on the other hand, doesn’t directly serve individuals or businesses. Instead, it benefits them indirectly, by reducing the amount of trash on our streets. Even then, not all the streets in San Carlos are swept. Some are too steep, or narrow, or winding. In addition, the street sweeping effort also cleans up various public spaces, so part of what people are paying goes to take care of facilities “owned” by the City.

One can argue, as Matt did, that (a) street sweeping is not garbage collection, and hence shouldn’t be part of the garbage assessment; (b) it’s unfair to charge those whose streets are not swept; and (c) the City ought to pay to clean public spaces out of its general fund.

On the other hand, garbage and trash are not just unsightly, they’re potentially harmful. It’s worth collecting and disposing of both. While not every street may be swept, everyone benefits from reducing the amount of garbage and trash lying around the City. A similar argument can be made for keeping our public spaces clean, too.

Where one comes down on this, I suspect, is a function of whether one takes a narrow view or a broad view of garbage and garbage collection. If you take a narrow view you probably conclude including street sweeping under “garbage collection” is wrong. If you take a broader view you probably think it’s okay to handle things the way the City does.

I lean towards the broader view, not only for the reasons mentioned earlier, but also because of the size of the financial impact. The $83,277.24 street sweeping contract — $8,300 lower than last year — is roughly 1% of the total garbage assessment. That’s a pretty small “surcharge” to improve the aesthetics and public health of San Carlos. So while I respect the thinking of those who take a narrower view, my pragmatism reinforces my broader take on the issue.

The logic behind either perspective can be argued. But, as is the case in many public decisions, a not so clean sweep is a workable solution. Given everything else we have to do, workable solutions are generally fine by me.

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