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Fighting illegal dumping

Illegal dumping of trash is a huge problem in some Houston neighborhoods. Enforcement is especially tricky because unless you catch someone in the act, there’s little to no evidence to go on. One way to help catch dumpers in the act is with cameras at locations where dumping frequently occurs. Council Member Jerry Davis has been working to get a camera program to fight illegal dumping going. He was able to get some money from the budget to work on this but couldn’t work out the details with HPD. We pick up the story from there.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

So last year, Davis and his staff instead turned to Harris County for help. He offered Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen the $250,000 to purchase, assemble and monitor 25 cameras in areas where people frequently cast off garbage.

Deputies from constable precincts 1 and 5 make up the county’s environmental crimes unit but have jurisdiction throughout the county. The deputies would largely focus on areas in council districts with the most illegal dumping complaints, ranging from Sunnyside to Kashmere Gardens to the East End. The county would own the cameras and keep any funds generated from prosecuting crimes.

In Houston, any amount of illegal dumping can result in fines, and more than 5 pounds can yield jail time.

On Wednesday, City Council approved the agreement, which could span three years with renewals. Harris County commissioners are expected to take it up early next month.

“It was a lengthy process and, yes, we did get a little bit upset at times,” Davis said. “But we just persevered and worked with the legal department to make sure this gets done because the people are counting on it.”

HPD environmental senior officer Stephen Dicker largely agreed with Davis’ assessment of why the city opted to work with the county. Dicker said HPD talks fell apart two years ago when he told the city he would need to add 15 people, effectively doubling the investigations unit, to set up, man and track the new cameras to the tune of $1.7 million. The money simply wasn’t there.

The city’s environmental unit also tends to focus on larger commercial and industrial offenders that have a bigger public health impact, Dicker said.

“The emphasis just doesn’t match up,” Dicker said. “He’s looking at just trash on the streets. We do water pollution, air pollution. Those are much bigger impacts. But we do hope the program with the county works.”

I’m glad to see this because it really is a problem, and for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where it doesn’t happen, we have no idea what it’s like to put up with this. I get why HPD focuses its environmental enforcement efforts on commercial and industrial offenders, but I’m still disappointed that the department didn’t have the capability to take this on, given what a big quality of life issue it is. This is one reason why I keep saying that we need to have a much better understanding than we currently do about how HPD prioritizes its budget, which very much informs how it prioritizes what crimes it pursues. I have no doubt that there wasn’t an additional $1.7 million to be found in the HPD budget as it currently stands, but I also have no doubt that we could re-prioritize that budget in a way that would have allowed this. Maybe we would still not choose to pursue this, but we can’t know that until we have a clearer picture of what HPD does and why it does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do.

I will also note that one of the things that a garbage fee could help finance is a stronger enforcement organization against all forms of illegal dumping. We fund the Solid Waste department through general revenue, which makes Houston different than other Texas cities. They do a great job, but they could do more of it, and there would be more room in the budget for other things. And no, I don’t expect this to be brought up for discussion any time soon. I’m just saying.

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2 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I hate to say it, but the way to catch illegal dumpers is to offer instant “crime-stoppers” reward money for people who report dumping when it is happening. I suspect that most people in the areas where it happens most often just don’t care about living in filth, or they feel it isn’t their problem. Give residents a shot at some quick money, and I bet they start turning in the people dumping illegally. Fund the rewards from the fine money collected from the dumpers.

    It’s truly astounding to me that the CoH will pick up almost anything at the curb once a month, yet people would choose to take their detritus farther away and dump it. It takes more energy and transportation to dump it somewhere vs. just getting it to the curb. Of course, lots of the dumping is probably done by contractors that don’t want to pay disposal fees when the job is done.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    I hate to say it, but the way to catch illegal dumpers is to offer instant “crime-stoppers” reward money for people who report dumping when it is happening. I suspect that most people in the areas where it happens most often just don’t care about living in filth, or they feel it isn’t their problem. Give residents a shot at some quick money, and I bet they start turning in the people dumping illegally. Fund the rewards from the fine money collected from the dumpers. Everyone has an Obamaphone these days, so it wouldn’t be hard for residents to snap some pictures of the vehicles, people, and license plates involved.

    It’s truly astounding to me that the CoH will pick up almost anything at the curb once a month, yet people would choose to take their detritus farther away and dump it. It takes more energy and transportation to dump it somewhere vs. just getting it to the curb. Of course, lots of the dumping is probably done by contractors that don’t want to pay disposal fees when the job is done.