Vacuuming Leaves

Mid-November, and driving around Webster Groves one sees bags of leaves lined up three and four rows deep on curbs everywhere. In some of the same yards where several dozen bags are present, it doesn’t look like the battle against fallen leaves is being won. Someone asked me yesterday how long it has been since the City of Webster Groves offered a leaf vacuuming service. Here is what we can learn from consulting our index of the Webster-Kirkwood Times.

An article on November 11, 1980 notes that the City’s leaf-vacuuming trucks made the rounds of neighborhoods every seven days from November until December 12th. Residents were asked to pile the leaves at the curb, not in the street, so as not to block stormwater.

In late June, 1982, the City Council voted to eliminate free leaf vacuuming service from the budget for 1982-1983. The move, recommended by then City Manager John Morrison, was estimated to save nearly $40,000, decreasing a projected operating deficit of over $100,000. The City still made leaf vacuuming available to residents as a paid service. Councilmembers John McCarthy and Malcolm Holekamp opposed the measure. They said that because trees were a large part of what made Webster Groves a desirable community, leaf-vacuuming was an important service, and that moving to a paid service constituted a hidden new tax on residents.

By January, 1988, the paper reported that residents were still paying for the City’s leaf vacuuming service, but that there were problems with it. Because the service was by appointment, and trucks ran once for a few weeks in November and again for a few weeks in December, piles of leaves might have several weeks to sit by someone’s curb. Rain, snow-melt and refreezing could render those piles nearly solid, and when the trucks arrived, workers needed pitchforks to pry the mess from the ground—actually vacuuming was out of the question. Cases were cited in which nearly an entire day was required to collect the leaves from one residence. Since the flat rate of $15 for the first visit and $10 for the second visit did not begin to cover the cost of the work, all residents were subsidizing the service for the few who used it. It was noted that in 1987, the City had collected $24,075 from residents for leaf-vacuuming service, and spent $89,700.

Sometime after 1988, the City discontinued its leaf vacuuming altogether, but in October 1994, newly-elected mayor Terri Williams reinstated it. She told the Webster-Kirkwood Times that throughout her campaign, she had heard from citizens who were very interested in seeing a leaf-vacuuming service. The City contracted with a third-party vendor, Top Care Lawn Service, who charged residents who wanted the service $40 for the first seven minutes and $5.50 per minute thereafter. The leaves collected were turned into mulch which was made available free of charge to residents at three city parks.

However, an article in the Times from March 24, 1995 reported that disappointingly few residents availed themselves of the service. It had been estimated that as many as 2,000 would use it; only 129 did—less than 1% of families in town. The leaf-vacuuming service did not come close to breaking even. Mayor Williams was optimistic about the eventual success of the program, hoping that more and better publicity would help. It didn’t.

In August, 1995, acting on a recommendation by City Manager Milton Matthews, the Council voted to get out of the leaf-vacuuming business altogether, deferring totally to private companies to provide the service to residents. Leaf-vacuuming, as a municipal service in Webster Groves, is not mentioned again.

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