Published October 14th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The trash tour started at a Hardee’s on the far east side of Kansas City, with Dale Walker at the wheel of the Blue Valley Neighborhood Association van.
Only a couple of minutes into the drive, Walker winced at a stray tire alongside Winner Road. He then navigated a narrow, hilly portion of Topping Avenue — where the remnants of a demolished car sat like an abandoned ship in a sea of junk across the street from Blue Valley Park.
Walker, neighborhood association president, passed rows of tidy homes before turning onto 27th Terrace and stopping near the intersection with Hardesty Avenue. He looked out the driver’s side window at the ankle deep mess of debris that encircled a small, burned out brick apartment building.
“It’s sad, you know?” Walker said. “Really sad.”
Walker would get no argument from city officials, who have battled illegal dumping for years.
The problem is pernicious in a city that is among the largest in the country in terms of geographic area — covering about 320 square miles — that offers plenty of spots for dumping. But the city is taking a fresh look for solutions with an audit that began late last month. It is scheduled to be completed in January.
“We think it is an important topic for a variety of reasons,” City Auditor Doug Jones told Flatland. “It’s a priority for the city, it’s a potential health issue — trying to make the city look as good as it can and be as healthful as possible — those are all important things.”
The new audit comes as only about 20% of city residents say they are satisfied with City Hall’s efforts on illegal dumping, the lowest rating in six years. Residents also rank illegal dumping as the solid waste service that should receive significantly more attention.
The city’s current five-year business plan, adopted a year ago, calls for developing an anti-illegal dumping campaign tied to health and environmental impacts — hoping that nearly one-third of city residents will be satisfied with the results when surveyed next year. The plan’s public safety section also calls for beefed up enforcement against dumping and other property violations.
The business plan calls for collecting 3,400 tons of illegally dumped materials this fiscal year, up from 3,100 tons in fiscal year 2018
The current audit comes more than two decades after a spate of illegal dumping reports issued by the auditor’s office, first with a 69-page performance audit issued in 1996 followed by check-ins two and four years later.
“Without exception,” City Auditor Mark Funkhouser wrote in the 1996 report, “the consensus expressed to the auditor by city management and field staff is that we are experiencing a significant increase in illegal dumping that accelerated in the early 1990s when the city stopped collecting yard waste, tires, and some other items on a regular basis.”
The city had stopped collecting those materials in accordance with a 1990 state law aimed at reducing the amount of solid waste collected statewide. Funkhouser also noted that a 1992 federal law had mandated special procedures for disposing of large appliances, rather than simply dumping them in landfills.
In its April 2000 follow-up, the auditor noted several improvements in the city’s handling of illegal dumping, including the successful prosecution of 11 illegal dumping cases between the summer of 1998 and Dec. 31, 1999. Two investigators hired to follow up on calls to an illegal dumping hotline had contributed to the prosecutions.
By 2000, the city had also started providing alternative disposal options for the items banned by the 1990 state law. The report noted, for instance, initiation of curbside collection of yard waste in the fall of 1995 and the opening of a household hazardous waste facility in August 1997.
But still, the report said, “Despite city efforts, illegal dumps remain throughout the city.” The city’s Environmental Management Department counted 154 active sites, down from 248 counted in the initial 1996 audit.
The report recommended more timely updates of the illegal dump site inventory and compliance with a city ordinance requiring registration of waste-tire haulers. It also called for the city manager to appoint a committee to make recommendations on regulation of businesses that transport and dispose of waste.
In his 1996 report, Funkhouser wrote, “It is not known how much it would cost to clean up all illegal dumping.” At that time, the city was spending about $400,000 a year on the effort — about $700,000 today when adjusted for inflation.
And the citizen satisfaction remains low even as, according to the auditor’s office, the illegal dumping program now has an annual budget of about $2.1 million, with a staff of six investigators, 15 administrative and clean-up workers, and contractors.
The new audit is narrowly focused, said Jones, the current auditor, given constraints on time and money. “Sometimes we have to bite off what we think we can chew,” he said.
The audit is designed to answer two questions:
As one of the illegal dumping investigators, Alan Ashurst has been on the frontline of the trash battle for more than eight years. He was the sole investigator during his first couple years on the job.
Based on his experience, Ashurst said the city can clear up an illegal dumping complaint within 24 to 36 hours, if it is just a matter of a bag or two of trash. Even with a bigger mess, like if workers have to bring in equipment to scoop up a bunch of junk someone left at the curb after moving out, the city can generally resolve the problem in less than a week.
Asked about the community engagement piece, Ashurst just sighed. Even a 10-year-old knows it’s wrong to dump trash, he said, but the practice continues.
The Solid Waste Division has 17 cameras trained on the most active dump sites around the city, and Ashurst checks each one of the cameras at least twice a week.
The cameras help catch dumpers, either by capturing a license plate number or getting a good image of the dumper’s face, which Ashurst can then check against police mug shots or driver’s license records. If the trash includes paperwork with a name, Ashurst can sometimes identify the culprit through social media photos.
“I use Facebook every day,” he said.
The cameras have limited utility at night, since a lot of times the flash will obscure the number when it hits the reflective material on the plate. And, their field of vision is limited to about 35 feet.
Dumpers lurking around the area can also pinpoint the camera’s location if they see Ashurst there changing batteries or getting the recording. He once lost 18 cameras in a single year.
Even the most active sites monitored by cameras are still filled with junk by the time the city makes its monthly cleanup sweep. Some of the most notorious sites are at 45th Street and Garfield Avenue, 22nd Terrace and Vine Street, and 37th Street and Oakley Avenue.
Ashurst knows all about the site at 27th and Hardesty flagged by Walker, the neighborhood president. The city can’t do much about that one since it’s on private property.
He’s also very familiar with the site Walker pointed out along Topping, which is near 24th Street.
“It’s just one of those spots,” Ashurst said. “You can clean it up, and a week later, it is going to look just as bad. It’s unfortunate.”
He’s had cameras there in the past, but that’s one of the sites where they are routinely stolen.
Ashurst earned a city commendation three years ago for his work with the police department to clear squatters from four properties in a section of Lawndale Avenue that is one block west of 24th and Topping. The operation recovered drugs, guns and stolen cars. Several of the individuals had outstanding felony warrants.
As difficult as it can be to catch illegal dumpers, Ashurst said he rarely loses once he gets a suspect to court. Even a single charge carries a fine of up to $1,000, and Ashurst said that is a powerful deterrent to reoffending.
With some of the worst sites in areas that are not heavily trafficked, Ashurst said the general public might not realize the strides the city is making against illegal dumping.
“It is getting better,” he said. “People just don’t see it.”
Walker commended the city for its work. He knows officials are trying to keep up with the problem.
Part of the solution, Walker said, is just drilling into people’s heads that it is simply wrong to dump trash wherever they like.
“It is just not right what they are doing,” he said. “They are destroying the neighborhoods with the trash. Nobody wants to live there with the trash problem.”
Jones witnessed the problem firsthand on an unrelated audit he worked on with the state several years ago. Looking down one block, he saw a house stuffed so full with green garbage bags that he thought they must be stacked floor to ceiling, corner to corner.
Taking on tough issues is why people like him get into the auditing business, Jones said.
“The work that we do helps our community, where we live,” he said. “It is not just helping the bottom line.”
Mike Sherry is a former editor and writer for Flatland. He is now a communications consultant for nonprofits and freelance writer.