It's all over but the counting. Opponents of a plan by Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource residential garbage collection turned in seven boxes of petitions asking the Fresno City Council to either void the decision to privatize the service to Mid Valley Disposal or allow the public to have the final decision.
Opponents, who needed just under 22,000 signatures, said they collected just under 40,000.
"This is truly, truly, truly a remarkable day," said Marina Magdaleno, representative of the Stationary Engineers Local 39, which represents the municipal trash workers.
City Clerk Yvonne Spence estimated there were 35,971 signatures, but will not know the final count until later this week when her staff counts the signatures.
Once the count is made, they petitions will be turned over to the Fresno County Elections Office for verification in a process that could take weeks. If there are enough valid signatures, the city council and mayor will have to decide if they will order an election at a cost of between $650,000 and $1 million, or give up on privatization.
"We are confident that these signatures will qualify for a special election," said Magdaleno.
Either way, city officials said they will have to make cuts to make up for the $200,000 monthly franchise fee they were due to receive from Mid Valley Disposal. The family-owned business was also due to pay the city a $1.5 million bonus upon signature of the contract.
"We'll have to make cuts right away because there's no time left in this fiscal year," said city manager Mark Scott, who warned of the "potential for a fiscal emergency."
"We're operating without any reserve at all," said Scott last Friday. "We're on the edge when it comes to cash flow."
Personnel costs account for about 81 percent of the city's operating budget. The contract was to go into effect on March 4.
Magdaleno and other privatization opponents said the city should have spent time talking about the issue with the voters.
She had a message for the mayor and the four councilmembers who have strongly backed the privatization of residential garbage collection.
"You have nothing to fear if you give the community a chance to participate," said Magdaleno.
Magdaleno said the residential garbage collection is an enterprise fund that does not use city dollars to operate, that the department is well-run and has won national awards for its efficiency. She also said garbage workers -- who have been guaranteed jobs with Mid Valley Disposal for up to a year -- fear they will have to absorb pay cuts.
The Fresno Trash Scam supporters also claim that the garbage rates will rise higher.
In television commercials and print ads, Swearengin said residents will see a 17 percent drop in fees. Opponents said residential customers were due a 15 percent fee reduction dating back several years but that the city council refused to act on a committee's recommendation.
"The people have spoken," said Magdaleno. "City hall has to listen to the people of Fresno."
The council's move has been opposed by Councilmembers Sal Quintero, Blong Xiong and Oliver Baines, the only minorities on the seven-member council.
Garbage worker Misael Daniel Santos said the community was overwhelmingly in support of a public vote on the issue.
"Every day for the last 2 to 3 weeks, we would get thumbs up from the people," said Santos.