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A week before St. Paul voters decide to dump or save the city's organized trash collection program, those urging a "no" vote insist they're not calling for a return to the old days of hauler-shopping and alleys choked with garbage trucks.

"The old system does not exist. The private market has essentially been wiped out," Tom Goldstein, a spokesman for plan opponents, said during a Tuesday news conference at St. Paul City Hall. "Most people understand that we're not going back and organized trash is the future. And so the question is 'How do we solve the problems of organized trash?' "

As Election Day nears, both sides in the rancorous trash debate are honing their arguments.

Goldstein said voting no will push city officials and haulers to hammer out a cheaper and more flexible alternative to the year-old plan. But St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and the rapidly mobilizing "yes" camp insist that if voters reject the plan, property taxes will go up dramatically. That's because a referendum defeat won't cancel the contract with haulers, leaving St. Paul on the hook for $27 million a year for the next four years. The only way to raise that money, Carter has said repeatedly, is through the tax levy.

"The referendum is no longer a question about whether or not our coordinated collection system will continue, but how we will pay for it," Carter spokesman Peter Leggett said Tuesday.

Plan opponents have accused the mayor of scare tactics, saying a clause in the contract should give the city an out in the wake of a referendum defeat. The city could then pursue a range of next steps, including forging an entirely new deal with haulers that provides a greater range of options for low-income residents and those who create little or no waste.

The City Council approved a five-year contract with haulers in 2017, and opponents immediately said it cost them more while giving them fewer options than under a decades-old system in which homeowners chose their haulers — and rates. The new plan's requirement that every housing unit, from single-family to fourplex, have its own cart also drew the ire of landlords and those who shared a cart with neighbors.

Supporters say they're happy that fewer garbage trucks are rolling down their streets and alleys each week, meaning less wear and tear, noise and pollution. The plan standardizes rates and divides the city into several sections, assigning a hauler to pick up trash for all homes in that section one day each week. It also allows property owners to leave out large items two or more times a year at no additional cost.

At the time the city started negotiating with the hauler consortium, it had 15 members. Now, the consortium is down to six, as a handful of national haulers have bought out several local ones.

If St. Paul voters approve the existing plan, residents will continue to be billed quarterly for trash collection for the remaining four years of the contract with haulers. If voters reject it, city officials have said they will likely shift the cost to property tax bills.

Attorney Greg Joseph, who successfully argued for the referendum at the state Supreme Court, said the fight was never about trash but about voters' rights to have a say once they collected more than 6,000 signatures.

"This is a great day for the voters, because this was a win for the people and the rule of law in this city," he said. "This fight was never between the pro-organized-collection crowd and the anti-organized-collection crowd. This was a fight between the city government of St. Paul and its own people."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428