ST. PETERSBURG — City rules say your trash is supposed to go in your container, either on your curb or in your alley. If it doesn't fit in there — say you've got a couch, washing machine or bookcase — you should drop it close to the container and call the city to pick it up, a service it offers at no charge.
For years, the city has been aware of a problem with these rules in certain neighborhoods. In Midtown, including Childs Park, Bartlett Park and Roser Park, so much large debris piles up in public alleys that two rear-loading garbage trucks regularly cruise those neighborhoods looking for junk. They go into other neighborhoods only when someone calls.
Last year was particularly trashy. City garbage crews picked up 4,031 tons of trash from Midtown alleys and sidewalks, nearly twice as much as the 2,164 tons gathered in 2008. Those figures do not include scheduled pickups, which target only containers.
Much of the junk came from homeowners who were eligible for free pickup, not construction businesses who must pay for the service, officials believe.
Sanitation director Benjamin Shirley provided those facts during a meeting at which officials discussed what to do about the trashy trend. The city believes foreclosures and evictions are responsible for the spike.
Their conclusion after the meeting? The city needs to do a better job of educating residents.
"There's an education component that needs to go along with this because a lot of people don't know" the rules, Shirley said.
The meeting was called days after Bartlett Park resident Scott Swift e-mailed dozens of photographs of debris-strewn alleys to city and elected officials. Although not denying a problem exists, city officials questioned the accuracy of the undated photos.
In an area with the highest crime rates in the city, trash in the street has a psychological effect that adds to crime, Swift said, citing the "broken windows" theory of policing that Mayor Bill Foster has espoused.
Shirley defended the city's practices, saying that a sofa or washing machine that is called into the city's hotline is usually picked up the same week, often the next day.
"If you don't call it in, somebody will still pick it up, but it may take a little longer," Shirley said. "It may take three weeks, but we'll get to it."
Brenda Nelson, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, defended the city, saying they "jump on top of it once you identify an issue."
Many residents have misconceptions about trash pickup that may keep them from calling, Shirley said. One is that residents always pay. Actually, the city only charges if the debris is large — say multiple pieces of large furniture, or large quantities of building materials or brush. The charge then is $17.70 per cubic yard.
Another misconception is that folks can call only about stuff in front of their property. Not so. Anyone passing by can call in an item that needs to be picked up.
Adding to the problem is the fact that the city only picks up garbage in public areas. If the refrigerator is on a front lawn or behind a fence, it becomes an issue for the codes department, which begins by trying to contact the owner. The process can take months, and the codes agency will act sooner only if there is a safety concern.
Only when guilt can be proven do fines come into play. There are five sanitation officers who investigate dumping. The Police Department has one detective, Charles Krickler, assigned to dumping. In 2008, Krickler handled two cases in Midtown that led to arrests. Last year, three cases led to arrests. Krickler is actively working three more cases.
Some think the city's process of issuing fines could be stronger.
"I think we just need to get the owners to be responsive," said Tom Tito, vice president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association, "but in the short term, we just need to get this stuff picked up."
Shirley said the city will ramp up its effort of distributing pamphlets and stickers that residents can put on garbage cans. He also said he will come speak at any neighborhood event when asked.
Reach Luis Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.