At a recent civic association meeting, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III happily touted the commercial investment, new grocery stores and tax revenue his government had helped generate since 2010.
But when he opened the floor to questions, residents had something else on their minds.
“What’s going on with our trash?” one Clinton resident asked.
It is a question Baker has heard repeatedly in the 14 months since his government cut trash pickups from twice a week to once, a change aimed at staving off a growing deficit in the solid-waste fund and bringing Prince George’s in line with the services offered in neighboring Montgomery and Howard counties and in Washington, D.C.
But the change was abrupt and poorly communicated, some critics say, sparking a backlash that has spilled over into the 2018 election campaign.
Former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards (D), who is considering a run for county executive, recently invoked the cut in trash pickups to make a point about trust in government. State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D), who is running to succeed Baker, made the issue the centerpiece of a recent telephone town hall. And State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks (D), launching her own campaign for county executive last week, got her biggest applause when she promised to resume twice-weekly pickups if elected.
“These are the kinds of services citizens rely on,” said Leslie Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties. “They are not dramatic or headline-grabbing, but if you don’t do them right, you will hear about it.”
In early 2016, Baker’s Department of the Environment was trying to deal with a pressing problem. The county’s decades-old practice of sending trash haulers twice a week to the county’s unincorporated neighborhoods had become prohibitively expensive (independent cities and towns in the county take care of their own trash, with most picking up once a week). The solid-waste fund, the pot of money that relies in part on fees of $30 a month per household, was running a $4 million to $6 million annual deficit.
Officials had a narrow window to come up with a plan to lower costs and renegotiate contracts with 15 garbage companies.
A study and informal feedback from department staffers showed far less trash being set out the second day of the week compared with the first, officials said, so much so that truckers, on their second pickup day, could complete their routes by noon. Among other things, the county’s high rate of recycling, tops in the state, was reducing the amount of garbage to be hauled away.
Baker’s administration announced in March 2016 that pickups would be reduced to once a week starting that May, with recycling and garbage picked up on the same day.
To soften the blow, Baker promised that the county would supply each household with a free 64-gallon trash container by the end of 2016.
But many homeowners say they missed the postcards and robocalls from the county government publicizing the change. And residents of townhomes had to specially request the new, supersize trash cans, delaying delivery in some cases. Thousands of households expected to get their cans when the pickup schedule changed, rather than months later.
Officials say they did their best to deal with an emergency situation.
“The solid-waste fund was in a death spiral,” said Adam Ortiz, head of the county environmental agency, who met with scores of community leaders, led dozens of meetings, and commissioned television and radio ads to explain the scaled-back program. “Change is change. No transition is flawless.”
Officials say they received little pushback when the change was initially announced, leaving them unprepared for the groundswell of anger that has surfaced on listservs and at public meetings. And they note that some community leaders, who may be less outspoken on the issue, seem satisfied with what was done.
“They really did things right,” said Sarah Cavitt of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, a citizen group in southern Prince George’s. “The problem that some members of the community had is that a lot of them didn’t read about it ahead of time. It’s a minority view.”
Still, in an unscientific email poll of more than 2,000 county residents, commissioned this spring by council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), more than three-quarters of respondents said they would support a return to twice-weekly pickup.
“Trash pickup is one of the few ways residents feel the impact of the local government every week,” Franklin said. He voted in favor of the service reduction last year but is critical of how the change was rolled out, and he is considering legislation to reverse it as he weighs a 2018 run for one of two new at-large council seats.
“Their service is being cut in half, but there’s no real change in what they are paying,” Franklin said. “They are unhappy.”
Upper Marlboro resident Brenelle McCoy lives along Route 301 in a rural part of Prince George’s. Wildlife, birds and pests are a constant preoccupation when setting out trash. So is the smell.
Since the county cut back on pickups, she said, she has stopped serving red meat to her family of six because she doesn’t like leaving the leftovers waiting in the trash barrel at the side of her house. Seafood, she said, can be consumed only on days close to Friday, the pickup day.
“Just think, if you have crab legs and it’s 97 degrees all week and trash is picked up on Friday,” McCoy said. “Just imagine what’s in your trash can. I actually took pictures one day of a maggot crawling on my trash can lid. . . . I haven’t had a barbecue all summer.”
Retired Prince George’s County police officer Harry Clarke said he tries to stay out of politics. But he’s fed up with keeping smelly garbage in his Upper Marlboro garage until his Thursday pickup day.
“I would vote for someone who promised to bring it back,” he said of twice-weekly pickup.
Muse, a frequent critic of Baker’s policies, said the schedule change was too dramatic and the time frame too short, especially for seniors and large families who ended up with trash pickup days late in the week.
During his telephone town hall, Muse claimed that the cost savings from cutting the trash service were not reflected in the most recent budget.
But county officials say $6 million in savings was put back into the solid-waste fund, reducing the deficit. The council then voted to direct $2 million that would have subsidized trash pickup to the county’s litter cleanup efforts, which residents say have needed a boost.
Muse sent a letter to Baker on Thursday demanding a return to twice-weekly trash pickup before the 2018 election.
“I think [Baker administration officials] were genuine in what they were trying to do,” Muse said. “But you have to listen to the voices of the people.”
Alsobrooks, who will face Muse in the June Democratic primary, says improving trash pickup is part of meeting the “quality of life” demands of Prince Georgians.
Franklin was more cautious, saying he was asking the county’s budget and finance staff to calculate how much more each household would have to pay annually to cover a second day.
Both Muse and Alsobrooks were skeptical that raising fees would be necessary. Each said they would look at other ways to pay for the service. But neither could offer a specific solution.
“I think government should be responsive,” Alsobrooks said. “And when people pay taxes, they deserve to feel their tax dollars are being used to improve their lives.”