Philadelphia issues more than 1,000 tickets for trash left outside, despite ongoing pickup delays

The city is “charging people for its own mismanagement of services,” said one West Philly resident.

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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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On Jewel Taylor’s block in Cedar Park, bags of trash sat outside in mid-June for six whole days. Residents report this is a frequent scene, as collection delays have once again befallen Philadelphia.

All Taylor knew was trash day would come around again tomorrow, and city sanitation crews were nowhere to be seen.

But the Streets Department’s ticket officers did make an appearance.

Taylor got a $50 fine for the trash left outside their property — as did some of their neighbors up and down the block. It felt like a sucker punch given the ongoing collection delays.

“I’m not frustrated with the delay in trash pickup as much as I am with my perception that the city is trying to line its pockets by charging people for its own mismanagement of services,” Taylor told Billy Penn.

“It’s like, not only are you giving us our ticket,” they added, “but you’re now coming the day before our trash day.”

Trash buildup increased dramatically during the pandemic, causing massive delays and dire conditions for sanitation workers. Data shows the city scaled back on ticketing for trash-related offenses during that time.

But as the crisis abated, officials ratcheted up the fines again.

Code Violation Notices issued citywide for litter on the sidewalk rose from 128 in April last year to over 2,600 in April this year.

Yet many parts of the city continue to experience routine delays. Since Memorial Day, the delays have plagued virtually every neighborhood. The Streets Department said ticketing enforcement was “relaxed” after that date. Data shows that is true to some degree.

After Memorial Day, fines dropped significantly — but the department still issued more than 1,000 tickets for trash-related offenses in June, the month Taylor was ticketed during a weeklong collection delay.

Streets Department spokesperson Joy Huertas said during the relaxation period, tickets should only be issued for violations unrelated to the pickup delays.

“The data supports citation issuance having been relaxed, but not halted,” Huertas said. “In cases where the violations were clearly outside of the factors surrounding the Department’s delays, citations may have been issued.”

For cases where residents like Taylor feel they aren’t in the wrong, Huertas suggested utilizing the city’s appeal process. Appeals for CVNs can be submitted online. According to the Office of Administrative Review, the alleged violator needs to prove they were not in the wrong using records, documents, photographs or written witness testimony.

What’s the status of the ongoing pickup issues anyway?

The pandemic-born trash delays were easy to explain. After stay-at-home orders came down last March, residents in Philly and across the country began accruing more waste at home than usual, resulting in serious collection issues for big cities.

For the recent slowdown, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration blamed heavy rains and the holiday disruption of Memorial Day.

WHYY’s PlanPhilly found a more compelling explanation in city records: nearly 20% of sanitation workers are out due to injuries or work burnout, and a quarter of garbage trucks are on the fritz any given week. Sanitation officials are working to boost staffing levels and fix other problems that contribute to the delays.

Huertas said the city will resume issuing tickets to normal levels when trash and recycling pickup returns to a normal schedule.

Whether they have any impact remains another issue.

A 2019 Billy Penn report found the city had increased tickets for trashy sidewalks and other rubbish-adjacent offenses more than 300% over the last decade. Officials maintain ticketing is an essential tool for behavior modification, but there’s little evidence to suggest the increased fines have worked.

More than half of the $100 million in code violation notices issued over the last decade went unpaid.

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