Foon Rhee

Surviving without the ‘Claw’

The ‘Claw’ scoops up leaves in Land Park in December 2011. This is the third year since year-round Claw service ended in Sacramento.
The ‘Claw’ scoops up leaves in Land Park in December 2011. This is the third year since year-round Claw service ended in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

Fall starts Wednesday, so in the Tree City, our thoughts turn to leaves – and for many, to the “Claw.”

This is year three with only limited “Claw” service in Sacramento. After voters narrowly gave their permission in November 2012, the City Council required all residents to use yard waste containers and restricted pickup in the street to peak leaf season.

It was a very controversial move. We’re talking villagers with pitchforks at City Hall – well, almost.

It turns out it wasn’t the disaster some critics predicted. While residents in the city’s leafy neighborhoods are still unhappy they can’t just push yard waste into the street whenever they want, many have grudgingly learned to live with the change.

“We have somehow survived without the Claw,” says Vickie Kirk of Land Park. Her family’s yard waste bin is jammed full nearly every week, and sometimes she has to ask to use neighbors’ containers, too. “It takes a village,” she told me.

So she’d be pleased if citywide Claw service started a couple of weeks earlier this year than the current schedule of Nov. 1 to Jan. 31. A lot of residents probably feel the same way, with some trees dropping leaves early, possibly due to the heat wave and drought stress.

Under the old leaf-collection system, about 12,000 of 115,000 households paid a little extra to get the Claw to come by year-round. But that didn’t cover the city’s entire cost, and it wasn’t fair to make everyone else subsidize it. As a whole, garbage service was costly and confusing, a politically toxic combination.

So the switch did make sense, and I wrote editorials supporting it. But there’s one issue on which I’m more sympathetic to critics now.

Garbage collection is the one basic city service for which we’re paying more but getting arguably less. Besides limiting the Claw, recycling pickup went from every week to every other week.

When City Hall revamped the solid waste system starting in July 2013, officials promised that rates wouldn’t go up until at least July 2015. They kept their promise, just barely. Rates increased by 3 percent starting July 1 and will go up by 2 percent next July 1 and again in 2017.

For a homeowner with a medium garbage can, the total bill will go from $34.48 to $36.96 a month in 2017. Of that increase, 40 cents is for yard-waste pickup – to $10.75 a month. Rates hadn’t increased since 2010, it’s not a huge bite and officials say they would go up even more without the change because of increasing disposal fees and other costs.

Even so, it’s annoying.

While we’re also paying more for other core city services, those have noticeably improved in the last three years – more police officers on patrol, more fire crews on alert, even more frequent park maintenance. Those restorations were paid for by Measure U, the half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters, also in November 2012.

Garbage service is paid out of a separate fund, a $60 million-plus annual enterprise that has to pay for itself. Besides the rate hike, the city has been trying to cut costs and make operations more efficient. Part of that was ending the patchwork of year-round street pickup of leaves in which houses right next to each other received different collection.

Now, the city is collecting more yard waste in cans than in the street – 14,300 tons in cans and 13,000 tons in the street during the 2014-15 leaf season, compared with 12,000 in cans and nearly 15,100 in the street during the last leaf season before the change. Having more leaves in containers also helps keep storm drains from getting clogged, and also opens up some street parking in neighborhoods.

Since year-round Claw service ended, about 550 customers have ordered a second yard waste container, according to the city. Nearly 5,000 coupons have been issued to dump yard waste at the city transfer station. And the city did roughly 3,900 yard waste pickup appointments last year and some 3,500 so far this year.

I haven’t taken advantage of that free service, though raking leaves is one of my least favorite chores. I sure didn’t think I would have to do it as early as August, but I have a big oak in the front yard that is hurting from the drought.

It would be easier just to push the leaves and twigs into the street, so I wouldn’t complain if the Claw came early this year, either. I’d also feel a little better about paying higher rates.