Picking up trash, recyclable materials, grass and leaves plus bulky items is serious business in Kansas City.
For many years, the entire collection process has been among the most popular — and most contentious — basic service provided to residents.
In Kansas City all of this work is often tagged with the phrase that it’s “free” because most homeowners don’t pay a monthly charge — as many other area cities require — for work crews to come through and whisk the stuff away.
That’s because voters in 1970 increased the city’s earnings tax to 1 percent, and City Hall pledged that it would use some of the revenues for trash collection. Since then, people have paid attention to various changes to the program.
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A few years ago the city reasonably placed a limit of two on the number of trash bags that a homeowner could put out each week ; anything more than that requires a sticker that costs $2.50 per bag.
That was done, in part, for the excellent reason of encouraging more residents to recycle. The city will pick up an unlimited amount of recyclable material at a home.
But given the fact that these services occur each week throughout the city, any quirk or glitch will get plenty of attention.
It thus was not surprising that when Mayor Sly James and City Council members met Tuesday for a weekly hearing on crucial issues, concerns surfaced about how well City Hall is delivering one service in particular — bulky item pickup.
New council member Alissia Canady wondered how the city could help physically clean up neighborhoods. It’s a legitimate question and one high on Canady’s priority list. She heard plenty of concerns about this matter from residents during her campaign for the 5th District seat in southeast Kansas City.
Other council members then chimed in with queries and statements about bulky item pickup, a program that collects large appliances, mattresses and other material too large for regular trash pickup.
For many years, the city sent trucks through neighborhoods looking for bulky items placed by the curb.
In 2003, during a tight budget period, top city officials floated the idea of charging up to $30 for that service. Mayor Kay Barnes correctly helped kill that idea, as she and others warned that such a fee would lead to lots of illegal dumping and extra cost for taxpayers to pick it up.
In 2008, the city decided to require homeowners to request bulky item collection, either online or through a call to the 311 Action Center. The theory was sound: People who needed the service could tell City Hall, and city trucks would go into targeted areas rather than drive up and down streets on a routine basis.
City Manager Troy Schulte on Tuesday pointed out to council members that the old system “was very inefficient.” It cost about $3 million a year vs. $1.5 million for the current one, according to Michael Shaw, manager of the city’s Solid Waste Division.
Eventually, bulky item pickup has gone more smoothly, though there’s room for improvement. The most recent citizen survey noted that satisfaction in the service had risen from 55 percent three years ago to 64.4 percent in 2015.
One lingering concern is how long it can take between the time a homeowner requests the service and the pickup occurs. For instance, when requests fill up time slots for a certain week in an area, it might be another month or two before more slots are available in that part of town.
Hiring an additional crew, Schulte noted, could lessen the time between bulky item pickups in neighborhoods. James and City Council members should look into that approach when next year’s city budget is put together, to see whether it makes sense.
For now, the city should continue the current bulky item pickup procedures, look for improvements and ramp up efforts to make sure residents know how they can request this vital service.