The Memphis City Council is considering leniency for business owners and residents who did nothing for nearly two years to comply with a ban on dumpsters in downtown's public spaces.
In January 2012, a city ordinance was passed outlawing dumpsters in downtown's public rights-of-way. But the rule came with a caveat: If the property owner could not find another reasonable way to dispose of trash, he or she could keep the dumpster but pay the city a $500 monthly fee.
It was agreed that the fee would not apply until November 2013 to give businesses and residents a little more than a year to find an alternative. The deadline came, and downtown business owners complained to city officials that the $500 fine was too steep.
The council's public works committee agreed last month to roll the fee back to $200 per month per dumpster. The new fee is working through the council's legislative process and is up for a final vote next week during the council's last regular meeting of the year on Tuesday, December 17th.
"The paramount concerns are that they smell bad, they attract rodents and vagrants and litter, and they look awful," said Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, which helped push the ban two years ago. "They are also using our public alleys, which could be nice public spaces, to warehouse their trash."
Morris said the majority of downtown's trash is stored on private property. But the rest is either thrown on the ground somewhere or is put in the dumpsters that remain in public spaces. And while trash in a bin is better than trash on the ground, Morris said parking privately owned dumpsters in public spaces is like parking a private car in the same spot.
Memphis public works director Dwan Gilliom said about 80 dumpsters clogged downtown public spaces years ago. But that number has been cut to about 30 in the last two years, thanks to an effort to encourage downtown property owners to buy trash compactors. The machines smash garbage, which means they can hold more garbage, making trash collections less frequent and more affordable.
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous and some surrounding businesses banded together in 2008 to buy a compactor. This co-op helped remove the bins (and their smell) from the famed alley and has been the shining example of the preferred solution to the problem for many public officials.
Council member Lee Harris brought a resolution to the council to spend $300,000 in reserve funds to build concrete pads for compactors in select areas downtown. But the resolution was shot down as many council members said the city couldn't afford it and that taxpayers shouldn't spend money that directly benefits private-sector profiteers. Harris noted that he was attempting to get traction on a problem that has vexed downtown for years.
"This is not a perfect solution, but I don't think there is a perfect solution," Harris said. "This is just where we are."
The council committee agreed to lower the monthly fee to $200 per month to provide some financial relief to business owners while city officials continue looking for a more permanent solution to downtown's dumpster troubles.
Patrick Reynolds, general manager of the Walgreens store on Main Street, said he has to have a clean, secure place to store his trash and paying the fee is "just a cost of doing business."
"If I have to pay $500 a month to have a dumpster, I'm going to pay it," Reynolds said. "Walgreens is not going to shut down, but I know a lot of smaller businesses and restaurants will be hurt by the [fee]."