Litterbugs infest local roadways

Vancouver spent more than $124,000 in 2012 cleaning up trash; few littering citations issued

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge.

An Otter Pops wrapper, an empty bag of Sun Chips, and a discarded to-go coffee cup.

The litter sprinkled along Fourth Plain Road on Tuesday didn't just magically appear, even though litterbugs are rarely identified.

While the act of littering carries fines ranging from $103 to $1,025, relatively few citations are issued. An offender has to be caught in the act by a law enforcement officer, and in the past 21/2 years, only 187 citations have been issued in Clark County.

Yet trash can be found along most major arterials and highway ramps in Vancouver, and just as it didn't magically appear, it won't magically go away.

How you can help

• To see a complete list of adoptable county roadsides and fill out an application for Clark County's Adopt-a-Road program, go to http://www.clark.wa.gov/publicworks/roads/adopt.html or call volunteer coordinator Karen Llewellyn at 360-397-6118, ext. 1627.

• For questions about Vancouver's Adopt-a-Road program, which is expected to start this fall, call volunteer coordinator Hailey Heath at 360-487-8316.

Instead, taxpayers pay the cost of cleanup and disposal. Vancouver has been spending more money to try and keep up with the amount of litter being tossed, and plans to start an Adopt-a-Road program to encourage volunteers to help keep streets clean.

This program will complement work already being done by neighborhood groups who do their part to keep their section of the city looking good.

For now, Clark County work crews — nonviolent offenders working off sentences and fines — do most of the not-so-heavy lifting.

In 2012, the city paid $124,168 for litter crews, up from $97,828 in 2011 and $95,544 in 2010. Those figures don't include thousands of dollars in disposal costs, said Loretta Callahan, spokeswoman for the city's public works department. Just disposing of trash picked up in streets, alleys and other rights-of-ways at a transfer station, for example, cost $11,502 last year.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said he frequently receives complaints from residents about roadside trash, and he shares their frustration.

"It shows an utter lack of respect for our community, the environment and others who enjoy living here," Leavitt said. "Littering is also an affront to taxpayers, as the city must spend monies on cleanup crews to address this nonsense, rather than on other important and pressing matters."

People who witness offenders littering from cars on state highways can call a hotline, which won't result in a citation but at least a warning letter for the registered owner.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, picking up and disposing of trash statewide costs more than $3 million a year.

The Department of Ecology operates the hotline, 1-866-LITTER1 (1-866-548-8371), in concert with the Department of Licensing and the Washington State Patrol.

Witnesses are asked to leave a license plate number, vehicle description and details about when and where the littering occurred. If the plate and vehicle description match state records, the registered owner will receive a letter from the State Patrol that includes potential fines for littering.

"I strongly encourage folks to document and report incidents of littering to the State Patrol or local authorities, of course depending on where the littering occurred," Leavitt said.

One of five crews

Vancouver currently uses a total of five types of county offender crews: two to clean parks, one for roadside maintenance (cutting vegetation), one to maintain Burnt Bridge Creek and one for litter. Between 2010 and 2012, the city's agreement with the county worked out to about 800 crew days per year, Callahan said. For 2013-14, the agreement was increased to about 988 crew days a year.

In 2012, the city spent a total of $323,100 on the different offender crews, Callahan said.

On Tuesday, a four-person litter crew picked up trash along Fourth Plain Road, starting at Southeast 166th Avenue and working west to Andresen Road, more than five miles. Crew Chief Frank Perron, a former Marine who started working for the county corrections department eight years ago, said crews range in size daily from four to 10 people.

The offenders report to work by 7:30 a.m. and are done by about 3:30 p.m., he said. They bring a sack lunch from home — so does Perron — and get a 15-minute break in the morning, a 30-minute lunch break and 15-minute break in the afternoon.

On Tuesday, if the crew made it to Andresen with time to spare, Perron was planning on having it work on an adjacent street until the shift was over.

"It's usually worse in the summertime," Perron said of the amount of litter on the ground. "On a day like today, we usually average 33 bags of trash."

He said offenders won't pick up all the little stuff such as gum wrappers; he tells them to concentrate on the big pieces of trash.

Sometimes that goes beyond candy wrappers, cigarette cartons and beer cans.

"You'll find people just throw furniture away," Perron said, shaking his head. "TVs, microwaves, bags of clothes." Needles are commonly found, and those go into a sharps container for safety. At the end of the day, the crew takes the trash to the city's operations center. The number of bags are logged, and that helps determine how often different streets need to be cleaned.

Perron said a crew works Fourth Plain at least once a month.

While offenders are picking up garbage to work off a sentence or a fine they were unable to afford, it does cost the county to run the program.

Tim Podhora, finance manager for the corrections department, said the $450 daily fee the county charges doesn't cover all of the county's expenses, which include salaries and benefits of supervisors, fuel and maintenance of vans, tools, safety training and the portable toilet that goes out with each crew.

"We carry quite a big inventory of tools," he said.

Podhora said the county hasn't raised the daily price in more than a decade. By law, the county can't make a profit from the services.

Adopt-a-Road

Last year, Clark County implemented an Adopt-a-Road program to save on the cost of keeping up appearances.

At the start of 2009, the county's four-member vegetation team, which tends 1,100 miles of roadsides, was cut in half as the county reduced its budget for median and roadside vegetation management.

Volunteers must make a two-year commitment to pick up litter at least three times a year, and the county also encourages volunteers to weed, prune and remove graffiti.

Vancouver, meanwhile, has cut grounds maintenance staff by more than 50 percent since 2009.

The city anticipates the guidelines for the Adopt-a-Road program will be finalized this fall, said Hailey Heath, the city's volunteer coordinator.

Volunteers will be encouraged to adopt a section of street, generally a half-mile in length, she said. Each proposal will be reviewed before it can be adopted, and certain areas, such as the medians in main arterial roads, overpasses and streets with very narrow shoulders, will not be available for adoption.

Like the county's program, volunteers will be asked to make a two-year commitment for the right-of-way section of their adopted street, Heath said, and pledge to clean the section at least three times a year.

After the sixth month of service, a recognition sign will be installed to acknowledge the volunteers' community efforts, Heath said.

Leavitt said he's confident volunteers will come forward to adopt streets, just as neighborhood associations have done.

"Fortunately, there is a sense of community pride being demonstrated by volunteers who are adopting parks and neighborhood streets, and making it a habit to keep those areas clean," Leavitt said. "That is really what Vancouver is about -- neighbors taking ownership and action!"


Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com