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Denver city government struggles to implement big mandates, from sidewalk fixes to trash overhaul

Joe Rubino, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

DENVER — Denver voters and elected officials haven’t been timid about setting higher standards for the services and oversight they expect their city to deliver.

In mid-2022, the City Council set in motion the launch of a pay-as-you-through trash collection program that also promised expanded compost and recycling pickup. Then, in that fall’s election, voters directed the city to take responsibility for sidewalk repairs and construction citywide — while also passing a mandate that apartment buildings, offices, restaurants, construction sites and special events follow new recycling and composting requirements. It was up to city government to enforce them.

Nearly two years later, city officials have implemented none of those three undertakings fully. Instead, the two voter initiatives are on pause while task forces and administrators figure out how they will work — while the rollout of the city’s expanded composting service has hit bumps and delays.

Frustrations are mounting, both among the initiatives’ sponsors and city residents.

“I don’t think there is any ill will, but if they come to me and say this is going to take another two years, I am not going to be happy with that,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, a former mayoral candidate who co-authored the citywide recycling and composting initiative for larger buildings, dubbed Waste No More. “This is long overdue for addressing our emissions. This is the will of the people.”

That measure passed with nearly 71% support from voters, and nearly 56% supported the sidewalks initiative. Still, Tafoya and other backers of the three efforts do not see the snags as an indication Denver is out over its skis when it comes to providing scaled-up services.

Changes take time in a city bureaucracy with roughly 13,000 employees — and they were complicated by the city’s spring 2023 election, which ushered in the first new mayoral administration in Denver in a dozen years.

The three initiatives may predate Mayor Mike Johnston’s tenure, but spokeswoman Jordan Fuja says he’s committed to supporting the will of the voters and the prior council.

“We’re working diligently to ensure these initiatives are implemented in a way that delivers the outcomes residents expect by evaluating community feedback, learning from early implementation efforts and exploring innovative solutions,” Fuja wrote in an email.

With the new mayor has come new leadership in many key city departments — including the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which is tasked with implementing the expanded curbside pickup program and launching the sidewalk repairs program. That effort will be paid for by assessing fees on property owners across the city.

New delays for some programs

The latest delays for some of these big initiatives have come in quick succession. Last month, DOTI officials told a council committee that officials do not expect to deliver compost bins to many of city’s 180,000 residential trash collection customers until 2025.

Timelines presented to council members two years ago had suggested the program would be fully implemented by the end of 2024, if not sooner. The design of the pay-as-you-throw program includes a new fee for trash collection, based on cart size, as an incentive to use no-fee recycling and composting bins more. Composting used to be a fee-based service.

DOTI attributes the slow pace to the focused public education efforts it is providing, as each new section of town gets its green bins, about what does and does not go into the compost stream. Compost spoiled with non-biological material undermines efforts to divert waste from greenhouse gas-emitting landfills.

And for the sidewalks program, last week delivered a new delay when a council committee signed off on an extension that could further delay bills going out to property owners by at least six months. Assuming that delay — recommended by a stakeholder committee — passes a full council vote, residents won’t see their first charges until at least January 2025, a full year later than the timeline spelled out in the original ordinance passed by voters.

Councilman Paul Kashmann sits on the sidewalk stakeholder committee, and he also voted for the pay-as-you-throw trash program two years ago. He noted that his southeast District 6 is among the areas that won’t receive compost carts until next year.

Kashmann said he understands frustration with the program delays. But he hopes people keep things in perspective.

The sidewalk program is a historic reorganization of how Denver approaches its pedestrian infrastructure. Until voters made their choice in 2022, the maintenance responsibility and liability for damaged sidewalks fell to property owners.

“I think DOTI will get its arms around it in relatively short order. And I think that in a few years, looking in the rearview mirror, folks will hardly remember these speed bumps along the way,” he said.

Jill Locantore acknowledged being dissatisfied with how the city has approached the rulemaking process around the sidewalk program. She is the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership and was a driving force behind what was dubbed the Denver Deserves Sidewalks campaign.

DOTI moved slowly when organizing a stakeholder committee, she said. The group only started meeting in August, just a few months before the original effective date for the new fees. That time crunch earlier contributed to the City Council approving the first six-month delay on the fees, which will fuel the far-reaching construction and repair efforts to come.

It also took time to loop in all the necessary city agencies, Locantore said. And input from the City Attorney’s Office drove the committee to propose changing the fee structure from variable assessments to flat rates for both commercial and residential property owners.

“It is frustrating, but it is what it is — and I think we’ve finally brought together the right people to do this work and are moving forward at a reasonable pace,” Locantore said.

DOTI has zeroed in on a potential start date for sidewalk work. The first wave of repairs could kick off next spring if billing begins in January as suggested, department spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn wrote in an email. DOTI also aims to launch the process to create a citywide sidewalk master plan at that time.

Kuhn expects a complete update to the ordinance language to come to the council for approval either later this month or next.

 

“Radio silence” on zero-waste ordinance changes

As for the other successful 2022 ballot measure, the Waste No More initiative, portions of the law are already being carried out, say officials with the city’s Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency office, or CASR.

The Denver planning department is requiring developers to submit recycling and reuse plans when applying for permits for demolition and to build new construction projects, CASR spokeswoman Emily Gedeon said.

Organizers of special events in the city, like the recently concluded Outside Festival in Civic Center park, also must submit plans covering recycling and composting to earn permits.

But it doesn’t yet apply to large buildings that don’t receive city solid waste service, including apartment and condo buildings with more than eight units.

Tafoya, the co-author of the initiative, served on the implementation task force. It was something he felt was especially important after he watched Denver’s Green Roof Initiative, another law he worked to get passed by voters in 2017, get watered down significantly during post-election rulemaking.

He said serving on the implementation task force was a productive and positive experience. The group included representatives from Denver Public Schools, construction and homebuilder organizations, and the solid waste-hauling industry. Meetings last year resulted in a final report published Oct. 20.

But Tafoya has been bothered by what he called “radio silence” from city hall since then.

The task force’s report features 14 recommendations for effective implementation. Those include moving back a number of deadlines written into the ordinance, including giving large apartment buildings — those with 75 or more units — until 2025 to comply with rules. Smaller buildings would have more time.

As the ordinance was written — initially with the hope of making the 2021 ballot — that first deadline was set for June 1, 2022, making it outdated when voters passed it the following year.

Gedeon confirmed the climate office is planning to bring changes to the council for approval, but there is no timeline yet.

“Understaffed and under-resourced”

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer has been sharply critical of the city’s rollout of its new pay-as-you-throw trash program.

Residents are already paying between $9 and $21 per month for trash collection based on their bin size, but more than half of those customers also are getting $3 monthly credits while they wait for their compost bins to fulfill the city’s promises.

Sawyer has questioned if the program is financially sustainable under those circumstances. If it isn’t, she said, it would be wrong to charge Denverites more at this stage. DOTI is performing a cost-of-service study, Kuhn confirmed.

“I think my fear is they are going to raise the prices. And you can’t raise the prices when you’re not providing the services in the first price,” Sawyer said.

The councilwoman gives DOTI and other city agencies more grace when it comes to implementing the sidewalk program and the Waste No More initiative.

Those were put on the ballot by people outside city hall and did not go through the same levels of vetting and assessment as measures passed or referred to the ballot by the council.

“(DOTI) is understaffed and under-resourced,” Sawyer said, “and they need additional time to build these projects out the right way to deliver for residents.”

City Auditor Tim O’Brien’s office scrutinized an earlier city neighborhood sidewalk repair program that struggled with a modest scope. It also dug into the city’s readiness to deliver on its pay-as-you-throw trash program promises in late 2022, raising questions about DOTI’s staffing, aging trucks and the program’s long-term financial plans.

He was careful this week not to opine on newer developments. He noted that big, complex initiatives often call for more planning before implementation.

“But,” he added as a caution, “you can do all the planning in the world and still run into things. I don’t know how you plan for the unknown. Look at Denver International Airport.”

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