A person blows leaves away from a storm drain.

Leslie Scott blows leaves away from the storm drain as her mother, Ola Wilcher, bags them up in front of her Cleveland Avenue home in Macon, Ga.

Credit: Liz Fabian / Macon Newsroom

When it comes to stopping litterbugs from throwing trash on the street and landscapers blowing leaves into the gutter, Macon-Bibb County will soon have a dozen new deputies on patrol.

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis recently swore-in eight Macon Water Authority staff members and plans to deputize four more to enforce the tougher anti-litter law passed about a year ago to help keep yard debris and other trash out of the storm drains.

“That’s the deal with the sheriff. I told him, ‘No bullets, no guns,’” MWA’s Executive Vice President of Plant and Field Operations Michel Wanna told the board last week when announcing the first round of staffers had been sworn in.

The county’s Municipal Court can fine people up to $1,000 for violating ordinances, but Wanna said it’s not about raising revenue. 

“It’s just for people to understand our system is not a garbage can,” Wanna said.

As Leslie Scott blew leaves away from a Cleveland Avenue storm drain Tuesday, she said she learned a lot about taking care of the environment while working for Georgia Power for 24 years.

Scott’s 81-year-old mother, Ola Wilcher, was bending over and scooping up handfuls of leaves and bagging them at the curb in front of Wilcher’s newly purchased home.

The first-time home buyer and her daughter had extra incentive to keep the gutter clean.

“My brother was one of those whose car got flooded on Zebulon Road last year,” Scott said. “His white Mercedes, they totaled that out, and that was a beautiful car.”

In October of 2022, less than a month after a clogged catch basin on Zebulon Road contributed to flash flooding that created a makeshift pond that stranded drivers, Macon-Bibb County strengthened its anti-litter law that covers blowing leaves into the gutter or piling them on the street.

Commissioner Bill Howell, one of the county’s two representatives on the Authority, led the 2022 effort to increase fines from $25 to $250 and allow select members of the MWA staff enforce it.

MWA took over stormwater management from the county in 2021 and began addressing long-neglected issues with the storm sewer system.

A discarded pair of medical scrubs blocks the storm drain near the intersection of College and Forsyth streets. (Liz Fabian)

A discarded pair of medical scrubs blocks the storm drain near the intersection of College and Forsyth streets in Macon, Ga.

Credit: Liz Fabian / The Macon Newsroom

Last year alone, MWA removed more than 7,000 tons of debris from streets and catch basins.

During last year’s discussion of upping the fine, Mayor Lester Miller noted the existing ordinance was not well-enforced.

“If you asked me how many citations we’ve given out over the last several years, probably the answer would be zero, but we have had quite an issue of people cutting grass, dumping things into the drains and causing us to have a lot of flooding,” Miller said.

At the time, Commissioner Elaine Lucas said she agreed with the principle of enforcing the law, but was the only one to vote against it because she thought the tenfold increase in the fine was excessive.

“Just think, our folks are not wealthy,” Lucas said. “They might not know why it’s important not to blow leaves into the sewer.”

Howell said that landscaping companies are some of the biggest culprits and the $25 fine was not much of a deterrent for them.

“In their opinion, it’s easier to pay a $25 fine than it is to do it right, so that’s where the $250 came from,” Howell said before the vote. “Education is key, but we certainly hope the $250 fine will deter most people from filling up our catch basins with grass clippings.”

Commissioner Paul Bronson, who represents the county on Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful, co-sponsored the change with Howell.  Commissioners Al Tillman and Valerie Wynn, who also serves on the Water Authority, also signed on during the debate.

Bronson learned this week that the MWA deputies will be ready to hit the streets for enforcement in the coming weeks.

“The gutter is no place for trash,” Bronson said Tuesday. “I just think it’s important for citizens to be more aware when they’re blowing or raking leaves to put it in a pile and burn it, if the burn ban is lifted, or put the straw around the trees or bag it, but blowing it into the street is not right.”

Under Georgia Environmental Protection Division guidelines, Macon-Bibb County’s burn ban is generally in effect from May 1 to Sept. 30 each year.

The MWA deputized staff, like other law enforcement officers, will have the discretion to issue warnings.

During the Authority’s late October board meeting, Howell encouraged more education to alert the public that enforcement is coming.

“I think we need to concentrate on warning people about blowing trash and yard debris into our system,” Howell said. “I think it’s important to let them know we now have a method to correct the problem.”

– Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Macon Newsroom.