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Garbage out

As the city and state stare each other down, the trash piles up

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Some Charlotteans were traumatized this month by their first experience with what passes for road maintenance in North Carolina. After trash piled up a foot high in some of the gutters along I-277 and medians began to disappear beneath the piles of junk, people started calling city hall to complain.

They'd be even more traumatized if they knew that until two months ago, when roads were still being cleaned by the city of Charlotte, taxpayers were paying twice for the state's slipshod road service: once in their state taxes and a second time in their city taxes.

The state maintenance was so bad by 1980 that the city of Charlotte signed a maintenance contract with the state and the city took over. Since then, the state has paid the city about one-fifth of the cost of maintaining the 108 interstates and state roads in the county that the state's responsible for. But the city's tight budget this year finally forced a showdown.

In September, city crews stopped picking up trash and trimming vegetation. Charlotte officials informed the state that the city would no longer be doing the work, which cost about $500,000 a year. The trash began to pile up and the complaints rolled in. After city officials' calls to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) were ignored, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory fired off a nasty letter to the governor on Nov. 4, demanding the state do its job.

"We were told, 'Do you want us to pick up trash or fix potholes?'" McCrory wrote. "We simply ask the state to uphold their obligation."

The showdown between the city and state is important because it's about more than just trash on the sides of the roads. Road maintenance is just one of the services the state collects taxes to pay for but funds inadequately, forcing some cities to do it themselves if they want it done right. The local prosecutor's office, for which the state is also responsible, is so underfunded that the city animal shelter has a bigger budget and other cities smaller than Charlotte have twice the number of prosecutors and three times the staff that Mecklenburg County has.

With state legislators taking heat this year for hundreds of millions of dollars of pork-barrel spending, including a teapot museum and a country music pavilion in the middle of nowhere, local politicians are finding it hard to believe the state is too broke to provide basic services. The problem local politicians face is that if they step up with funding when the situation is desperate -- as it is with the court system here -- the state might take that as a sign that the city is willing to pay bills the state is responsible for. And what would happen if cities just stopped paying? "I guess they showed us," said Charlotte City Council Member Susan Burgess.

The state hasn't been totally unresponsive. A week after McCrory's letter, prison inmate road crews overseen by the state transportation department began cleaning up I-277. The area looks better now, but that may not last long.

Unlike the city, the state doesn't hire crews -- it uses inmate labor to pick up trash from the roads. With only four inmate crews allocated to Mecklenburg County to keep the interstates and more than 100 state roads clean, it seems only a matter of time before the trash piles up again. While crews worked on the loop last week, trash continued to pile up on Independence Boulevard.

"It's an unacceptable standard of delivery and is below what we should expect from the state," said Burgess.

NC Department of Transportation Division Maintenance Engineer Philip Moxley said his department also noticed the trash was building up, in particular in the I-277 corridor. DOT put a plan together to pick it up, and Moxley insisted the situation won't get so bad again.

But a comparison of the city's efforts and those planned by the state suggest it will. Solid Waste Services Public Information Officer Brandi Williams said city crews used to pick up trash every two to four weeks on roads like Beatties Ford and Billy Graham; every six to eight weeks on roads like Tyvola and Lawyers; and every two to three weeks on the I-277 loop and smaller streets.

Moxley said the state plans to clean the loop and the interstates every two and a half months, the same amount of time that elapsed between the end of the city contract in September and the state clean-up of the loop last week.

The rest of the 100 or so state roads, including Providence, Freedom, Woodlawn and Rea, won't be cleaned at all by prison crews, though Moxley said the crews might swing through if a spot becomes particularly dirty. Twice a year, the state has litter campaigns, so the other roads might be cleaned then, he said. And some roads have been adopted by volunteers who pick up trash from time to time.

Moxley said that DOT recently cooperated with the city on trash pick up -- sort of. Before NASCAR executives visited Charlotte to discuss locating a museum here, the state honored a city request in August to clean the loop.

"The city called wanting a special effort," Moxley said. "It just so happened that we were getting to it anyway."

Burgess, who serves on the city's transportation committee, said she's already worried about how the streets will look when the National League of Cities holds its conference here.

"We have thousands of city council members and mayors from across this country coming to Charlotte in three weeks and this is the first time the National League of Cities has ever been in North Carolina," she said. "We're so proud of our city, and for it to be in this condition for the first time ever is quite an embarrassment."

Despite this, Burgess said the city shouldn't give up its crusade to get the state to do its job.

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