There’s litter in Palm Coast. In that regard, the city is not unlike every city, every town, every county in the nation or the planet. The question, which the Palm Coast City Council or its administration did not answer during a discussion on littering Tuesday, is whether the problem is particularly significant now, whether it’s growing, whether it warrants increasing fines, and whether it warrants redirecting sheriff’s deputies’ attention from crime-fighting to trash patrols and steeper enforcement.
At least one council member–Ed Danko–wants to see that stepped up enforcement. But is he conjuring an issue out of proportion with a problem even he could not define?
The unanswered questions left Mayor David Alfin perplexed, especially if there’s discussion of tasking cops with stepping up their trash policing. He wasn’t aware, when he spoke, that over the past year, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office had issued one–just one–charge or citation for illegal dumping, a Sheriff’s spokesperson said today: not an indication of a colossal problem, or a particularly enforceable one.
“The only thing I’m challenged with, and I would ask that we invite a representative from the sheriff’s office at the next possible meeting to confirm their ability to assist us,” Alfin said, “but I’m not clear on the metrics we would use to determine that we have made progress. For me anyway, I’m sorry to say that it’s somewhat subjective. I drive by an area on one day and it looks terrible and I may not look at it the next day. I don’t understand what kind of a metric we can use. So I’d like to give that some thought. Because if we are going to task the Sheriff’s Department as we’re negotiating down the road, how do we determine the level of service? What does that really mean if we could ‘put some teeth to that,’ so we know what we’re getting. And they know what our expectations are.”
Danko is looking to step up littering enforcement in the city. He cited the 10 additional deputies the city just funded in its new budget as one of the ways to get that additional enforcement.
“I think the way to really help put a dent in this problem is strict enforcement,” Danko said. Like the administrative presentation that preceded his comments, Danko did not offer up measurable evidence of the problem he was referring to. “This comes from my years of living in the great state of Texas, where we had a campaign called Don’t Mess With Texas, and that went towards the pride that Texans feel about their state, and it really had a major impact. You don’t see many people throwing something out of a car in Texas, and if they do, they got a real big chance if the state trooper is going to pull them over, a Texas Ranger, and write them a steep $1,000 ticket or $500 ticket whatever it is now.”
Littering of up to 5 pounds in Texas can draw a fine of up to $500. (The city’s presentation included a somewhat misleading image of a street sign in Texas threatening a fine of up to $1,000.) In Florida, the fine for littering up to 15 pounds is $150. Littering more than 15 pounds in Florida is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail. In Texas, littering more than 5 pouds is a Class B misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $2,000 and 180 days in jail.
Florida is harsher on big dumpers: anything more than 500 pounds draws a third-degree felony, which carries a fine of up to $5,000 and five years in prison. Texas is kinder in that class: up to a $4,000 fine and a year in jail, and it remains a misdemeanor. But it’s the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign, not the fines, that’s credited with curbing the state’s littering problem.
“I’m looking for what I proposed earlier in the year, a campaign that makes people in Palm Coast feel proud about our city,” Danko said, “and it’s not going to be don’t mess with Palm Coast, That’s a Texas thing it’s not going to work here, but I think we can come up with something. But we have to put some teeth into it.” He threw out as an example “Keep palm Coast Beautiful,” and fines of up to $1,000.
There is no evidence that city residents don’t feel proud of their city. There is evidence, based on the last National Community Survey of Palm Coast residents, that 82 percent rate their quality of life as excellent or good, 76 percent consider the city’s image positively, and 89 percent give its overall appearance an excellent or good rating. The numbers improved this year.
The city may not levy fines anywhere but on its own properties such as public parks, pathways and city buildings and their surroundings–ironically, the areas generally kept cleanest, because city staff is frequently crisscrossing them. City Attorney Bill Reischmann said the city council could enact higher fines for those zones, by ordinance, and impose them through the code enforcement department. But in other rights of way, state law, and state fines, prevail. (The law requires that a third of the $150 fine goes to the state’s Solid Waste Management Trust Fund, which issues grants.) The money Palm Coast would raise through its fines would go to its general fund–assuming it would raise anything much.
“Education enforcement I would respectfully suggest are the issues here,” Reischmann said, suggesting signage that highlight the fines and the criminality of littering. But he, too, was perplexed about the starting point of a discussion with an undefined problem. “I would respectfully suggest that probably the most productive analysis of this is to determine what is the main problem that you’re having, because there’s different types of littering and dumping, and how you deal with them from an enforcement standpoint is different. It is very different to enforce someone throwing a McDonald’s bag out of a car. It’s much more difficult.” The only way that can be enforced is by cops. Code enforcement officers don;t have that authority. Even if they had the authority, Reischmann said, “is that a good idea?”
Reischmann said code enforcement, to the extent that its officers are enforcing rules they can, is doing so effectively. “What I’m hearing from the public and what I’m hearing during these presentations is that what the problem is the most difficult one to fix, and that is when you just have people that are driving along,” throwing things out the window, “and we don’t have that many sheriff’s officers out there to follow, to be everywhere, where people just throw stuff out of the cars. That one, I would respectfully suggest, would be some education.”
Danko was fine with an education approach but again returned to putting a $1,000 fine on signs, and to amend the city’s code to increase its fines. Danko did not seem to understand the attorney’s cautions–both about applying the fine beyond Palm Coast’s code enforcement jurisdictions, or calibrating the fine to a given offense. The Sheriff’s Office may not enforce a $1,000 fine that would contradict state law, on right of ways, along city streets and so on. The fine would only apply where the city has jurisdiction, for the same reason that the city could not–for example–apply a stricter or harsher penalty on drunk drivers than state law provides for, or fine an individual over a nuisance issue more than what state law allows.
Alfin was interested in exploring those issues further, including potentially changing the city’s littering ordinance–and hearing from the public about those changes. But Danko’s push echoed previous, not entirely thought-out initiatives by council members looking to have an impact on visible but not necessarily critical issues, as when a council wanted to do something about panhandling a few years ago, an anxiety that quickly fizzled, or when the council panicked about “bath salts” sold in stores, or code enforcement took on door-to-door salespeople. The initiatives tend to draw a flash of attention then fade, if at some cost in time and, at times, money.
Palm Coast Development Director Jason DeLorenzo had begun the presentation with the closest thing to solid evidence, though it was general, and applying to national estimates, not to Palm Coast: There are “more than 2,000 pieces of litter per mile,” led by cigarette butts and, in the past year, millions of pieces of personal protective equipment such as masks. Debris flows out of trucks, people discard trash out their car windows, and there’s still illegal dumping.
There were more city-related facts, but with little context or relative numbers to make the problem, such as it is, more quantifiable along the lines Alfin was looking for.
Public Works Director Matt Mancill said all his employees take it on themselves to pick up litter when they see it “regardless of their primary duties.” They have litter containers on most of the machines they use all day, including mowers, which have a grabber attached to each machine. “They attempt to pick it up instead of grinding it under the machine because that obviously makes it a little more difficult to pick up after the fact,” he said. The department has one full-time employee dedicated to litter control. He picks up an average of 45 bags a week along the right of way, and 47 bags along the sidewalks and pathways. That adds up to 1,380 pounds a week.
But other public works employees assigned to other duties, such as mowing crews, incorporate litter pick-up in their runs. Nine employees pick up about two bags each per da–90 per week, or 1,350 pounds–with clusters around construction sites. The crews also see illegal dumping in neighborhoods, “debris that that might be put on an empty swale area from another lot or just out of the back of somebody’s vehicle,” Mancill said. “We tend to have a lot of random couches that tend to show up alongside of ways, other things like that.” One favored are for litter: U.S. 1, where a lot of things blow out of passing vehicles. The Public Works department keeps two 30-yard dumpsters that are emptied of garbage once a week. That’s 138,000 pounds a year, on average.
Groups are participating in its Adopt-a-Park program. The city also has adoption programs with its trails, shoreline, medians and roads. It has the annual Intracoastal clean-up, and the “Keep Palm Coast Clean Event.”
“To build awareness we would suggest that we have a branding contest or a naming contest for the annual event,” DeLorenzo said. “We would then turn that new brand into updated signage throughout the city, because we do have some old very old signage out there for littering. And of course we still would need to plan the event for the springtime.” It would have to be funded.
DeLorenzo began his presentation with a throwback to the famous–or infamous, depending on your perspective–“Crying Indian” ad that first aired on television on Earth Day in 1971: the “Indian” rowing through litter in a river suspiciously like Cleveland’s then-fire-prone Cuyahoga with its banks of polluting factories. As the “Indian” stands along a busy highway, a passing somebody throws a bag of garbage at his feet. The “Indian” then turns to the camera as it pans to his eye, and a tear drop. It was an extremely effective and memorable ad in its day, and the organization that launched it–Keep America Beautiful–is still campaigning. But the actor known as Iron Eyes Cody who played the “Indian” was in fact (like DeLorenzo) of Italian descent, born Espera Oscar de Corti. The ad is among the more prominent cases of cultural appropriation. And it left silent the responsibility of big, industrial polluters.