Garbarge police are ready to pounce if you get caught illegally dumping in this town

Bags of illegally dumped trash sit along the bank of a pond in the San Joaquin River Parkway area at the north end of Fresno in this June photo.
Bags of illegally dumped trash sit along the bank of a pond in the San Joaquin River Parkway area at the north end of Fresno in this June photo. Fresno Bee file

Litter and illegally dumped trash amounted to more than 1,348 tons of material that had to be cleaned up around Fresno over the past two years. Now, Fresno is increasing its surveillance ability and is poised to beef up penalties for people who are caught and cited for unlawful dumping in city streets, alleys and vacant lots.

The Fresno City Council will consider raising its fines and taking other enforcement actions for illegal dumping, including seizing vehicles used for illegal dumping and authorizing criminal charges against serious violators. The changes to the city’s Municipal Code are up for a vote on Thursday.

Under the city’s current ordinances, if a dumper is caught and cited, the fine is $500 for a first offense plus covering the city’s cost to clean up the mess; $1,000 plus double the city’s cleanup costs for a second offense; and $3,000 and three times the cleanup costs for third and subsequent citations.

If the council approves the changes recommended by Jerry Schuber, the city’s solid waste chief, those penalties would rise to $1,000 for a first ticket, and $1,500 for a second ticket. The fine for a third offense and beyond would remain at $3,000. Those fines are in addition to the cleanup costs for first, second and third offenses.

The changes would also allow the city to impound a vehicle found to be used in an illegal dumping case, as well as enable the city attorney to either sue the violator or prosecute them for a misdemeanor criminal charge that could land them in jail for up to six months.

“Illegal dumping violators will be prosecuted to the maximum extent permissible by law, so we’re going to throw the book at them if we can,” Schuber told the council in an October workshop previewing the tougher ordinance provisions. “We’re adding quite a bit to those fines.  And the impound piece for a vehicle is huge. It can cost thousands of dollars to get a vehicle out of impound. It can be very expensive, and it keeps them from being able to do it again – with that vehicle anyway.”

The number of reports of illegal dumping received by the city through its FresGO mobile app for residents has climbed significantly in recent years, from just under 2,000 calls for service in 2015-16 to more than 3,400 calls in 2016-17. Since July, the pace has continued to increase, Schuber said, and the number of calls is expected to reach 5,000 or more by the end of the fiscal year next June.

So far, the city has issued 175 citations for unlawful dumping, most caught by remote surveillance cameras mounted in areas that are chronically plagued by trash. As of October, the city had three such cameras in operation, but was purchasing four more for Fresno’s Code Enforcement division at a cost of about $48,000. “They are going to put them all over the place and hide them in places where we see repeat offenses,” Schuber said in October. “They’ve been using those cameras to catch people and write those citations, and (the charges) have been sticking.”

Of those citations, however, only about $31,000 – about 38 percent – of the potential fines have been collected, Schuber said.

dumping heatmap
A “heat map” prepared by Fresno’s Solid Waste Management Division shows the heaviest concentration of sites where illegal dumping is reported across the city. The redder the area, the more dumping is reported. City of Fresno Solid Waste Management Division

The city’s FresGO app, a smartphone application through which residents can report problems to city officials, has also been a helpful tool for the solid waste and code enforcement divisions to track chronic nuisance areas of illegal dumping across Fresno and map them. The heaviest concentrations, Schuber said, are south of Ashlan Avenue, ranging from Highway 99 at the west to Chestnut Avenue in the east, and south to Jensen Avenue.

Councilman Paul Caprioglio said he’s inclined to back even bigger fines than what Schuber is proposing. “I think when the word gets out that it’s a $5,000 mistake you’re making and you’re on camera, word spreads pretty quick,” Caprioglio said.

Councilman Oliver Baines likes the idea of shaming offenders on social media by surveillance camera photos or video of illegal dumpers. “Is there some reason we can’t do that?” he asked.

Schuber said he’s seen other cities “do the whole Facebook thing (and use) social media for shaming people into behaving. We literally have video of people dumping and folks just driving by watching them do it.”

Bigger fines and more aggressive enforcement aren’t the only potential solutions being considered by the city. Schuber told the council in October that his department is looking at establishing dumping “convenience centers” where Fresno residents can take bulky items that won’t fit in their curbside containers for weekly trash collection instead of finding a dark side street to ditch their stuff. And because of concerns over the effectiveness of yearly Operation Cleanup periods when people can stack up piles of trash and refuse at the curb in front of their homes – and the visual blight that lasts until the trash is collected – Schuber said he’s looking at other cities with “on-demand” curbside collection of big items, for which residents can call to schedule a low-cost pickup.

“Nothing is off the table,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re looking at all the best practices.”

If the council approves the changes Thursday, the new law will require a second vote –most likely next week – and take effect a month later.

If you go

The Fresno City Council will meet at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in the second-floor council chamber at Fresno City Hall, 2600 Fresno St. The meeting is open to the public.