Taxes are upmost on voters' minds these days, but so are environmental concerns. People seem particularly keen on getting more recycling opportunities. Collecting and processing recyclables costs money, however, which must come either from property taxes or user charges.
In its long-awaited report, the Baltimore City/Baltimore County Task Force on Waste Stream Management and Reduction suggests the creation of a system that would reward recycling, punish the use of non-recyclable materials and end government reliance on property taxes as the revenue source for garbage removal.
People would be charged a fee according to the amount of trash they throw out. The higher the trash pile, the higher the fee. "Ultimately, it is a system where our property taxes do not pay at all for the collection or disposal of trash," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
This kind of a system exists in Seattle. Since 1961, half a million residents there have subscribed to a collection service.
They have been given containers which are picked up once a week. A separate curbside program collects recyclable materials and is provided free to all residents. The concept has been quite successful: 77 percent of residents voluntarily participate in the curbside recycling program and 34 percent of Seattle's total waste stream is recycled.
Seattle is not Baltimore. Above all, that Pacific Coast city's trash problem is not tied to all-pervasive poverty the way Baltimore City's is. How will Baltimore City residents who don't even use garbage bags be persuaded to use designated containers? How will the service fees be collected from transients or families who survive on food stamps?
The situation may be somewhat different in Baltimore County. But would a fee-based system there increase illegal dumping -- already a major problem -- along county roads and in parks?
Yet these concerns should not deter the city and county councils from seeking solutions to these tough problems or from devising a self-supporting trash collection and recycling concept that fits this area's needs. The costly garbage crisis is not going away, nor will it become less expensive.
The city/county task force could lessen the homeowners' property tax burden by shifting the cost of collecting and disposing trash to those who throw away the most. This is a concept that should be championed by those who advocate spending cuts and lower property taxes and who complain about inefficiency and the high cost of government.