May 4, 2004 - From the August, 2003 issue

Judy Wilson Stepping Down From L.A. Bureau Of Sanitation: An MIR Exit Interview

In the world of city government, there are few departments as unglamorous yet infinitely important as the Bureau of Sanitation. Responsible for solid waste removal, water filtration, and storm water runoff, the Bureau has many responsibilities and is governed by local, state, and federal mandates. MIR recently caught up with Judy Wilson, outgoing Director of L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation, to discuss the state of the city's sanitation infrastructure, budget, and to provide an update on the Bureau's effort to move away from being a landfill agency by 2020.


Judith Wilson

Judy, in our March 2002 interview with you, the headline read, "Cash Poor City of Los Angeles May Derail Sanitation's Plans For Infrastructure Development." Bring us up to date. How well did your department fare in the city's budgets over the last two years?

We did quite well actually. We managed to get rate increases for both the Sanitation Equipment Charge (SEC) and for the Sewer Services Charge (SSC). Both require Prop 218 hearings, which will be conducted on September 16th. The budget assumes a modest 3% increase in the SSC and a four dollar increase in the SEC. This will allow us to continue acquiring alternative fuel trucks for refuse service, fund the bin replacement program, and continue our capital improvement plans for refuse. We're also continuing on with a very aggressive capital program for the wastewater collection system.

Why don't you once again share with our readers the goals of your department, one of which you noted last year was to move away from being a landfill agency by the year 2020?

We've accelerated that project. The mayor has asked us to make plans to get discontinue the use of the Sunshine Canyon landfill by the end of 2006, so we're in the process of doing that. The plan is going to require us to site six transfer stations throughout the city, which we've already started to do. We're planning to site a transfer station in the western part of the Los Angeles area, and we're in negotiations to acquire a privately owned transfer station in the northeast part of the city. We expect to receive proposals in September for out-of-city disposal options. Hopefully, we'll be able to craft a viable program to take our trash out of the city rather than continuing on at Sunshine Canyon after 2006.

Translate for us what it actually means to discontinue using Sunshine Canyon by 2006. What demands does it put on the Department?

Clearly, taking our trash a greater distance from the city is going to cost more money. And, when we receive our proposals in September, we'll see just how much more. As an example, if we take our trash directly to Sunshine Canyon without going through a transfer station, it costs $22.73 per ton. When we move it through a transfer station and on to Sunshine Canyon, it's $43.17 per ton. If we are no longer able to direct haul trash due to the longer distances, everything will have to go through a transfer station. So, we won't have any more tonnage going through at $22.73. At a minimum, it will be at least $43 per ton, and perhaps more, depending on the location of the alternative land fill.

Last year, you said we were moving to landfills about 900,000 tons of solid waste a year in Los Angeles, and that the City would probably run out of space in landfills around 2018-to-2020. What does that mean financially for the city's general fund?

This is a general fund expense. Currently, the SEC money is earmarked for infrastructure only-to construct yards, acquire transfer stations, buy trucks, buy bins, etc. The costs associated with not using Sunshine Canyon and taking our trash elsewhere are general fund expenses. The City Council could decide to expand the SEC to include tip fees, which may be necessary if they choose to go with the mayor's recommendation. Right now, it costs us about $44 million a year for tip fees. How much higher it will go remains to be seen. I had given the Council an estimate that it could be as much as $60 million a year. Until we see the actual proposals, we won't know for sure.

Could you elaborate on all of the program responsibilities under your jurisdiction that demand like public infrastructure investment?

Well we have one that's totally orphaned-the stormwater program, which deals with the urban run-off. We get a very modest sum-$28 million a year-collected on the property tax bill to deal with stormwater pollution abatement. That basically provides for the permit requirements we have from the Regional Water Quality Resources Board and a very small (roughly $3-4 million per year) capital program for flood control and low-flow diversions.

We have new mandates called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), which are going to require hundred of millions of dollars of investment. We have trash TMDLs with a zero limit for the LA River and Ballona Creek. By September 2006, we're supposed to attain a 20% reduction in trash. We haven't even begun to implement that-there's just no money to do it. I recommended to the Council that we increase the Stormwater Pollution Abatement Fee, but that will require a vote because it's subject to Prop 218 requirements. This really is a crisis in the city in terms of our capital program-it's mandated but there's just no money.

For wastewater, we're projecting modest, steady rate increases over the next five years in order to finance a fairly massive capital improvement program. We're continuing to allocate money-around $250-300 million a year-primarily for the wastewater collection system. We've almost completed the East Central Interceptor Sewer, we're underway for the Northeast Interceptor sewer, and we have a lot of other older sewers we want to replace and rehab. We also have some projects at the upstream treatment plants because we need to need adhere to new TDML requirements for ammonia. So we're really moving along on wastewater.

For solid resources, the challenge is to identify and site facilities. Everybody needs the service, but nobody wants it in his or her backyard. Trying to site transfer stations in order to be ready for rail haul in the future is going to be a real task.

It all sounds so incredibly essential and unglamorous, especially at a time when people mistrust government and don't want to pay more taxes or fees. Could you speak to the politics involved in securing the revenues and personnel needed to get the job you describe accomplished?

This is the first time we've had fee increases in a decade. Frankly, I was surprised that we were able to do it so easily with the Council. They were very supportive of the increase in the Sanitation & Equipment Charge. They understand it's a service we need to have. Costs have gone up, in part because we have new mandates to meet. The Council understood that, and they were prepared to raise that rate in order to secure these services. In addition, we're now expecting commercial haulers to pay for some of the costs of the recycling programs. We put together an AB 939 compliance fee, which is a 10% gross receipts tax on commercial haulers from the city. We're now at about a 60% diversion rate from landfills and our goal is to get to 70% by 2020, but that incremental 10% is going to be expensive.

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Let's return to the urban runoff issue. In last year's MIR interview, you commented with great force about urban runoff, its policy challenges, and its cost and benefits to the City. Could you update our readers on this issue and your concerns as a General Manager?

I continue to worry about the expense of removing all of the trash from the Los Angeles River. As you continue to ratchet up, that last remaining amount gets very expensive to remove. We're talking about the aesthetic enjoyment of the Los Angeles River; it is not a public health issue. So that's a concern.

There are also TMDLs on bacteria in Santa Monica Bay, in Ballona Creek, and in the Los Angeles River which require treatment of urban run-off. You can't get to the AB 411 beach standards without treatment. Everyone would like to think that if we do a lot more source control and we have more opportunities for infiltration that it would improve the situation. It would improve it, but it would never reach AB 411 beach standards year round. The regulations require the city to maintain that standard during wet weather.

To put the amount of water we're talking about in perspective, a half-inch of rain generates 2.1 billion gallons in Ballona Creek. Managing to capture and treat that water is going to be an engineering marvel. Once you've done that, to then release it to the ocean would be ridiculous. We're working now with a group of over 100 stakeholders on an integrated resources plan in which we're looking at potable water, storm water and wastewater, and trying to come up with integrated strategies. If we're forced by regulation to treat urban run-off, we want to be able to reuse that water.

You made mention last year that the then new mayor was moving forward to create a blue-ribbon committee for public infrastructure. What has come out of Mayor Hahn's idea?

The committee is going to be providing a report in October, which will include a priority list and a funding program. They've set up a system where various departments are presenting the condition of their infrastructure. We did a presentation to the committee on the wastewater and solid resources as well as strormwater. We have a report card on city infrastructure, and refuse and wastewater both received a "B+" grade.

The stormwater program is at a "C-" and soon to be a "D" once we look at these new mandates. In any case, their reaction was quite interesting. They said, "Why should we give you any money when you already have a "B+"? We have streets and various other pieces of the infrastructure that are "D"s. Why should we allocate money to a program that already has a "B+"?"

My response was that, because we are regulated, we always have to have an "A+" on our report card. The fact that we are regulated is why our infrastructure is in good shape. If it weren't regulated, we probably wouldn't have the resources we need.

Could you describe the dollar competition during deliberations on the city budget between departmental discretionary requests for more sidewalk repair, tree trimming, and street resurfacing and departmental requests for funding the city's core infrastructure requirements, which are regulated or mandated by law?

That is a good question. What I've seen in my six years here as Director of the Bureau of Sanitation is that those standard public works responsibilities -sidewalks, streets, and tree trimming, etc.-are not getting the attention they need. They're poor cousins to the police and fire department, which always get the first dibs on general funds. The other concern I have is that we have new mandates-which I don't consider to be really core in terms of protecting public health-that are going to drive out other important services like sidewalk repair and tree trimming. We're going to have to meet these mandates regardless. If we don't have special funds, we're going to have to use general funds in order to meet these mandates. If we fail to do this, it's likely we'll be sued and forced to do it anyway.

At the end of our interview last year, you addressed the DWP's "toilet-to-tap" controversy. Where is the status of that issue today?

DWP is working on that project. They're trying to see if they can serve an additional golf course with the water and use it for irrigation. Meanwhile, of course, the Bureau of Sanitation is looking, at new mandates. We may have to go to reverse osmosis at the Tillman treatment plant in order to meet new requirements for TMDLs. Treating water with reverse osmosis and then putting it into the aquifer is very similar to the Groundwater Replenishment Project in Orange County, which has widespread public support.

Lastly, you recently announced that you will be retiring as Director of the Bureau Sanitation in the fall. Like you, a number of general managers have been retiring. Why now, and what might you do next?

I think six years is long enough to be manager of a 24/7 organization. I've really enjoyed it, but it's time for me to turn a page. I'd like to start my own business and continue to be involved in government relations and infrastructure development. 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.

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