Dubuque city staff’s recommendation to push forward with a plan to transition to automated garbage collection is problematic — even if a rate increase is no longer attached.

While the money was an issue, those who raised questions about this had further concerns beyond the price tag.

But let’s start with the price tag.


Last month, the city proposed a 7.68% rate increase in its solid waste collection fee for the fiscal year starting July 1. The hike would have helped cover $1.9 million that the city will spend over the next three fiscal years for trash carts, two automated collection trucks and robotic arms for the city’s current trucks.

That proposal was met with a resounding “no” from this city’s Resilient Community Advisory Commission, who voted unanimously to recommend that City Council members table the proposal, citing a lack of information and public input.

Now, the plan is back, with changes that negate the need for a rate increase.

It turns out, the city needs to purchase two new trash collection trucks anyway, even without the change to automation, so their cost should not have wholly been included in the earlier estimate — just the additional cost for them to be automated collection trucks. The city now says the total cost of the move would be about $850,000 over three years.

That’s quite a difference.

It begs the question of how much study was put into the plan originally — a plan that included every household in the city paying more. Not enough study, apparently.

Still, the timing of a move toward automation feels wrong, given the tremendous impact that COVID-19 is having on our local economy. Unemployment has jumped dramatically, small businesses have taken a devastating hit, and the city itself anticipates a $2.5 million decrease in revenue this fiscal year.

Those are just the effects we know about today. It could get worse. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the budget impacts from the pandemic at a special work session set for Wednesday, April 22. At the very least, major spending decisions should be postponed until after that. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars right now when it isn’t critically necessary feels imprudent.

Another change to the plan was dialing back the proposal that every household would be required to have a 48-gallon waste cart. Now there’s an option for 34-gallon trash cart. That’s a positive change, considering a survey showed 78% of residents said a 35-gallon trash can meets their needs.

The advisory commission, which voted 8-1 this week to recommend that the City Council table the updated proposal, suggested that the city consider an option that aligns with a zero-waste goal, something that’s part of the city’s comprehensive plan, as well as its climate action plan.

Certainly, the City Council is not bound by the recommendation of the commission — that’s why they’re called advisory commissions. But in this case, the commission seems to have a better read than city staff on community support — or lack thereof — for this move.

If that’s not enough, there’s the reality that Dubuque’s hilly topography is not entirely conducive to automated collection. With winding streets, alleyways and steep inclines, the new system wouldn’t work in every neighborhood.

Citizens are worried about their health, their job security and the impact that COVID-19 will have on our vibrant community. An expensive change to automated trash collection would be an ill-timed decision..

Editorials reflect the consensus of the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board.