Protesters preserve yard waste pickups

Score one for the pitchfork-toting masses.

Convinced by a deluge of resident comments, the Modesto City Council on Tuesday rejected a budget-trimming proposal that would have eliminated a popular program that allows residents to leave large piles of yard clippings in the street for curbside pickups.

"This has been a true pitchfork moment in terms of never having experienced anything like this in six years," said Councilwoman Janice Keating, who was elected in 2001.

"You all want your services. You don't want it to go away, and we're going to have to find a way to pay for it," she said.

A change in the way the city paid for the pruned refuse program prompted the proposal when it first appeared at a council Finance Committee meeting in April.

The switch put the yard waste program in competition for funding with roads, public safety and parks. Previ-ously, the $1.27 million cost of the curbside pickups each year came from the city's sewer fund.

Modesto faces a lean year in its general fund and is looking at across-the-board cuts of 7 percent in city departments.

The city proposed shifting the free curbside yard waste pickups to Modesto's two garbage haulers, which would collect the clippings in the green bins residents already have.

But doing so would have cost all residents an extra $1.59 each month on their garbage bills. People who would have needed a second green waste bin would have been charged $4.16 a month under the proposal the council rejected.

Residents protested the pro-posal in droves in phone calls to a city comment line and in e-mails to council members.

Many of them worried that forcing people to put all of their yard waste into the green bins would prove too difficult for seniors.

"I can't imagine a bunch of little old ladies like me going out and getting chain saws to cut up this stuff and get in the bins," said Pat Egenberger, 65.

Others pointed out that the program the city runs is the most cost-effective option in terms of cost to residents. The current program costs less than $1.40 per month for each resident, as opposed to the minimum charge of $1.59 a month if it shifted to the garbage haulers.

"I think we are paying for it, and I think you people are being disingenuous with the people of Modesto," said Pete Kolf, 66, who said rising sewer and water rates should be generating more than enough revenue to pay for the pruned waste pickups through utility user taxes that go to the general fund.

Council members voted unanimously to look at different ways to maintain the program, including by pursuing a citywide vote that would ask residents whether they'd agree to pay about $1.33 a month to fund the yard waste pickups.

"There's not enough money to provide the services we provide to the citizens of Modesto," Councilman Brad Hawn said.

In other business, the council voted to spend $952,427 out of the Modesto Redevelopment Agency to pay for road and sidewalk improvements outside the Gallo Center for the Arts.

The vote made good on a commitment by the council in 2003 to pay for the work.

"This is really a city project, though it sits at the Gallo center today," said Councilman Garrad Marsh, linking the work that took place on 10th and 11th streets to planned road improvements.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.