April 30, 2004 - From the April, 2004 issue

New GM Of L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation Opines On City's Unheralded Mission: A Landfill-Free City

Charged with solid waste removal, water filtration, and stormwater runoff, the Bureau of Sanitation is one of the most important, yet unheralded, departments in city government. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Rita Robinson, General Manager of L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation, in which she discusses the regulatory challenges facing the department, and provides an update on the Bureau's effort to stop dumping trash in Sunshine Canyon Landfill by 2006.


Rita Robinson

Rita, you recently assumed leadership of the complex and unheralded Bureau of Sanitation for the city of L.A. What are the most significant challenges you face as its General Manager?

Our largest and most significant challenge is the continued protection of public health and the environment. We have to meet those challenges on a day-to-day basis. The myriad regulatory agencies and competing demands that come toward us are just a few of the things that the mayor brought to my attention as we began to talk about this position.

In MIR's exit interview with Judy Wilson last August, she spoke of the significant funding challenges the bureau faced while dealing with the mandate to phase out Sunshine Canyon, and the requirement of meeting the TMDLs regarding stormwater runoff. As we move into this fiscally constrained budget cycle, what are the bureau's funding priorities?

Actually, TMDLs and Sunshine Canyon still top the list. We have to make the TMDLs to accommodate the trash projections for 2006, and we currently are developing a lot of the processes that we're going to put in place to meet all of the other TMDL requirements.

And with regard to Sunshine Canyon, luckily we don't have to be out until 2006. We established a task force to work on alternative ways to dispose of our trash in the city. Incidentally, I was on the team that worked on the closure of Lopez Canyon. So, I am quite familiar with the dearth of landfill space statewide and the challenges ahead for disposing of our trash. Just as Judy said in her interview, whatever alternative to Sunshine we choose will have to be farther away from the city. And we know that it costs more money to haul trash. So, at this point we're just looking at how much more that will be, and then we'll come up with ways that we're going to cover those costs.

Rita, you're a veteran of City Hall, and the mayor is trying a new approach to budgeting in a time of fiscal constraint. Share with our readers how difficult it is for the GM's to get these funding priorities met.

With anywhere between a projected $200-$300 million deficit next year, the mayor took a big step in leadership to go beyond variable program cuts and inquire as to how much it costs for us to perform what we do. And then, once we determine all the functions the city provides, we can prioritize those and cost them out as a means to determining what the city should be spending.

This process of priority-based budgeting has provided a good understanding of program budgets. In particular, we can look at a program and know how many staff are needed, how much money it costs for us to do refuse collection, how much it costs the police department to do community-based policing, or how much it costs the fire department to operate as paramedics. There has been a learning curve with this process, but once the budget comes out on April 20th, the public will be able to see what it is their tax dollars buy. That's an important step in the right direction.

When we are able to accumulate more money, we can fund other things, which is exactly what we did as we built this budget over the years. We put in a lot of things when we had money that have become staples in the city. At this point, the city is no different than a family struggling to pay the bills. We must decide if we should go to the movies or pay the electric bill.

Often in years of budget crunches, long term city resource planning suffers-i.e. maintenance and infrastructure investment are cut to meet current obligations for police and fire. Share the process of prioritization leading up to the development of the mayor's budget proposal and the prospects for funding Sanitation's long-term planning priorities.

Many people beyond the mayor's office and the board of Public Works were included in these discussions-representatives from labor, from the City Council, and from the private sector-that aimed to identify the laundry list of services provided by the city. Once that list was determined, we tried to isolate the most important services and programs in which the city should be involved. So, it was an inclusive process. And, although I haven't seen the final document, in the discussions we've had, it appears that Sanitation's long-term planning efforts-to meet our TMDLs and to meet the demands of the potential withdrawal from Sunshine Canyon by 2006-were a part of the mayor's budget.

Your predecessor indicated last summer that one of the Bureau of Sanitation's goals was to move away from being a landfill agency by the year 2020. Give us an update on how well you are progressing towards that goal.

As I said, our plan is to be out of Sunshine Canyon by 2006. We may not be out of all landfills by then, but we hope to be out of Sunshine by 2006. Today, we have a number of task force stakeholders who are involved in developing alternatives to our traditional landfill functions-anything from new landfills further out to pilot projects for waste energy processes.

Our current programs still have room for growth. Our recycling program has yet to bring in multifamily apartments. As much as we can keep diverting recyclables away from landfills, that will help all of us. So, that's one way we are looking to grow, by increasing our efficiency.

By 2006, my best guesstimate is that we may end up with contracting with a landfill facility further away from the city for a period of time. The extra time will be necessary to put some of the more innovative ideas into place. Rail haul certainly is something that the region is evaluating and I hope to engage in a discussion with the County Sanitation Districts to discuss a regional approach to implementing this solution. It won't be that long before all of the landfill space available to the city and county will no longer be available. Eventually, we're going to have to haul our trash out of the region.

Rita, the Bureau sought an increase in the Sanitation Equipment Charge last fall, and appears to be going for yet another one. Can you update us on that effort?

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Right now, we're focused on looking at the recent one-dollar fee increase passed for the purchase of a recycling and transfer station. In order to implement any of our landfill alternative strategies, we're going to have to have more transfer stations. Today, we pick up trash from 744,000 households each week. We don't have enough trucks just to go to a landfill one load at a time. So, we have to go to transfer stations where we can drop off our loads and then continue our route, getting more use out of our trucks on a daily basis.

The one-dollar fee now in place is to pay for a new transfer station site. Down the road, we were looking at a five-year plan for increasing the Sanitation Equipment Charge, and we're continuing to study that idea with the mayor's office and with other stakeholders.

A year ago, the tonnage charge was about $22.73, and Judy predicted it might go to $42 dollars a ton. Where is it today?

We're still around the $22-24 fee, because we're still relatively close to Sunshine. We know the tonnage fee will be more than $25 once we get farther away, because all the other landfills available to us are farther away than Sunshine. It just depends on what alternatives come to us with regard to establishing more transfer stations, because that could help keep costs down. The cost of trash collection is all predicated on the number of trips, the number of trucks, and the amount of tonnage.

Is the city of L.A. capable of meeting its TMDL targets? And what's the consequence should we not meet those targets?

We are actively working towards meeting those targets, and we will meet them. We're moving very close to the fixes that we want to put in place in our catch basin. There are a number of different approaches that we're going to take with regard to catch basin inserts, or catch basin open coverings and other netting systems. As a result of these systems, we will be able to achieve our 20% reduction by September 2006.

Rita, is there sufficient regional governance authority and collaboration to meet the challenge you've just described of coordinating our claims with others in the region to keep our costs in check?

It may not be in place now, but my hope is to establish at least the beginnings of that regional structure so that the city, county and everyone else can come together and develop an efficient and workable waste management strategy. Because, from my background in the CAO's office, we cannot stand alone on something this important. This effort must take all of us working together.

In her last interview with MIR, Judy Wilson said, "I continue to worry about the expense of removing all of the trash from the Los Angeles River. As you continue to ratchet it up, that last remaining amount gets very expensive to remove. We're talking about the aesthetic enjoyment of the L.A. River. It's not a public health issue." Your comment?

We know the importance of the L.A. River and the focus that Mayor Hahn and Councilmember Reyes have directed towards it. So, we realize that the River is a priority for the city. However, my old boss used to say that a tanker moves in degrees, it doesn't suddenly make a left turn. So, I'm hoping that by step by step, in degrees, we will begin to take steps so that we can show progress in the L.A. River projects and eventually get to that end game. We're not going to get there overnight.

Can you bring us up to date on the city's efforts with regard to AB 411 beach bacteria standards? What's happening on that front?

We're certainly working on looking at ways to make that happen. With regard to the bacteria issue, it's being researched both internally and by outside experts. I'm still getting up to speed on the issue, but I know that my staff has been working on that and they're making progress. I know that we're trying to work with the regulatory agencies to identify how we capture the essence of the regulation and find the appropriate fixes. With regard to the regulatory agencies, I have found that the concept of what we can do sometimes doesn't fit the practicality of implementing it. This may be one place where we're stuck with regard to the bacteria. But, we're trying to find some other ways to a solution by asking other people to come to the table and help us.

Let's close with another quote from Judy Wilson's interview last August, "The department is in better shape now than when I arrived, but the regulations are getting more draconian and the money is getting scarcer. The next six years are going to be as difficult as the last six, if not more so." Do you agree?

There is no question that we have a number of challenges facing us. They all cost money and I will take the advice of Councilwoman Miscikowski, who said at my confirmation, "Even though they'll make you afraid to tell them the truth, just tell them the truth." So, all of the newer regulations will be costly. All of them will be extremely involved. And Judy's right, we're getting more and more regulations on top of regulations, and they even seem sometimes to compete with each other.

One of the things we do well as a city is that we sift through the alternatives and try to make the right choices for the residents of the city. We tell the truth both to the residents and to the policymakers so that they'll understand exactly what is involved. I'm totally full disclosure-I'm not about playing games. I will provide our policymakers with the best information possible so they can represent our residents and make the most appropriate decisions on their behalf. I have 2600 excellent people who want to continue to do excellent work for this city, and I'm very proud to be the leader of that group.

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