Litter — Affordable housing, access to health care and a new crime strategy are on her agenda, but more and more, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon is talking trash.
Litter -- floating in the Inner Harbor, cluttering the alleys of Park Heights and tumbling along Harford Road -- has become a central concern of Dixon's fledgling administration, an issue the mayor says speaks to the city's broader quality of life.
"It's a matter of coordinating the effort and not saying, 'This is not my job, that's not my area,'" Dixon said, promising that changes will take place as soon as spring. "There's a lot of different groups in the street, and I'm just not sure that we're maximizing our efforts."
Dixon, who became the city's 48th mayor last week to serve the remainder of Gov. Martin O'Malley's term, ripped a page from her predecessor's playbook yesterday morning by taking a ride in one of the city's fluorescent-green trash trucks. She clung to the back as it lumbered through Park Heights and even hauled a few trash bags into the compactor.
Though the gesture was symbolic -- a photo op -- it underscored the administration's emphasis on picking up garbage, a theme Dixon sounded in the days before her swearing in and again in her inauguration speech. The tour, which started at the Northwest Sanitation Yard in Remington, also gave the mayor a chance to speak with the workers who see the city's trash troubles up close.
Mark Willis, a Department of Public Works laborer, was one of several dozen workers who met with Dixon before the morning routes got under way. Willis said the city needs to remind residents about pickup schedules and teach them how to place trash out for collection.
"They don't know how to put their trash out. The older people, they know how to do it. The younger generation, they just throw the bags over the fence with the bags untied," Willis, 45, told Dixon as the group stood in a parking lot before sunrise. "There's plenty of confusion going on, and we're getting overworked."
Trash and litter re-emerged as an issue at City Hall last year as the City Council worked its way through the budget. Robert W. Curran, who sat on the council then and is now its vice president, called on O'Malley to use $2 million of a projected budget surplus for overtime and additional alley cleaning. Curran said the city still has a long way to go toward addressing the problem.
"It's not just the visual pollution, it's also unsanitary. It causes the city to have a tarnished image," Curran said. "I see folks dumping illegally. It's just horrible."
Baltimore expects to spend $72.4 million on solid waste management in the fiscal year that ends this June. That money is used for cleaning streets, removing graffiti, picking up after large events and bulk trash. Of that, the city will spend just under $21 million for its twice-a-week residential trash collection, recycling and emptying the city's 3,600 corner trash baskets.
Cities across the country have privatized trash pickup, switched to automatic collection -- in which the truck itself picks up and empties the trash cans -- and moved to collection only once a week. Other cities have become stricter about what they will collect curbside and have offered incentives to garbage collectors who exceed expectations.
Abby Goldsmith, senior director with R.W. Beck, a management and engineering consultant firm based in Seattle, said litter has been getting more attention from city and state governments in recent years. Her company is increasingly performing "litter surveys," in which staff document and attempt to find the cause for trash, she said.
"It's definitely being tied to quality of life. There's a lot of studies out there that show that litter leads to more serious crimes, like graffiti and broken windows," Goldsmith said. "I think people see it as a measure of something else, an indication of something else."
As Dixon rode through the city's northwest neighborhoods yesterday, she noted the examples of litter she hopes to eliminate -- wrappers and cans lining Druid Hill Park, pizza boxes and clothes along Reisterstown Road, a large, red couch dumped on its side in an alley.
As neighbors still wearing their sleepwear came out to greet the new mayor and children walked to school, Dixon pointed to a car parked in an alley without any tags. A back deck held a collection of cages filled with pigeons that, presumably, are being trained. Few of the problems she saw would be handled by trash collectors. But, she said, all city workers need to get in the habit of alerting other agencies when they see problems.
"That sends a message that you care about the city," Dixon said.
Hours after Dixon left the neighborhood, an aide said, the owners of the car and the pigeons received citations.