Zurik: City trashing a gold mine in dumpster fees

Dumpsters such as this one may not be very attractive, but they're a potentially lucrative source of revenue for hard-pressed budget managers at New Orleans' City Hall.
Dumpsters such as this one may not be very attractive, but they're a potentially lucrative source of revenue for hard-pressed budget managers at New Orleans' City Hall.

Chances are, if you've driven through more than a handful of streets in New Orleans, you've noticed plenty of those big dumpsters.

"They might have 10 in one block," one man told us when we asked how often he sees the big trash receptacles.

How many over an entire year? "A thousand," another resident replied.

According to city records, only 104 homes and businesses had dumpsters in all of 2013.

"Along the curb, in the street, generally that's where most of them would go," said Cedric Grant, the city's deputy mayor of facilities, infrastructure and community development.

City law requires a fee for each dumpster, which means the city is missing out on money.

Anyone putting a dumpster at their house must pay a $40 application fee and $20 per day for dumpsters in the public right-of-way.

For one week, the city should collect that $20 fee for six out of seven days. Last year, for the 104 dumpsters, the city collected $42,000 in fees.

In early January, we spent two days driving around the city. We searched mainly the Lower 9th Ward, Uptown and Lakeview - and we found 211 dumpsters. That same week, city records show only 13 dumpsters were permitted. And of those 13, just one was on our list of 211.

"It's one of those things that needs more enforcement," Grant told us. "If we receive a complaint we send one of our inspectors out and deal with it. But I would say that, in the realm of things that we have to do, that it's probably not as high a priority as it should be."

Here's where the missing money comes into play.

For one of those January days we searched, the city collected just $780. If they would have collected money for every dumpster we found, they could have brought in $12,660. Again, that's just one day.

When we suggest to Grant that the city could potentially collect millions more dollars in dumpster fees, he told us, "Let's hope so. And we're certainly going to try and put together a strategy to see what the costs and the values [are] in doing that, because there's all kinds of violations that we need to look into."

In multiple weeks in January, we found at least 211 dumpsters across the city. If City Hall had collected permit money for that many dumpsters all year, it would bring in $1,316,640.

Remember, the city only collected $42,000 in 2013.

During the weeks in 2013 and 2014 when we looked for dumpsters, we found an average of 13 dumpsters per square mile in Lakeview, 6.5 per square mile in Uptown, and almost 7 per square mile in the Lower 9th Ward. So the city likely has even more than the 211 we found.

"We're going to look at dedicating some resources," Grant said. "I talked to some of our staff and our chief administrative officer about the opportunities to just try and dedicate someone that can just go and look out for whatever violations are out there."

When we interviewed Grant, he didn't seem to think the city could collect much more than the $42,000 for those 100 permitted dumpsters last year.

When we shared our data, the deputy mayor said the city should take a look and see if there's a way to collect more. He cites limited staff for not doing so earlier.

Grant says paying the fee usually falls on the contractor doing the work at homes.

We found that many people may not even realize that placing a dumpster on the curb or the street requires a permit. That may be why the city issued just 104 dumpster permits last year, 100 in 2012 and, in 2011, just 76 permits, collecting only $28,000.

All you have to do is drive around town, and you'll see a lot of dumpsters that could equal a lot of cash for City Hall and the public services it offers.