Baltimore-area government officials met yesterday at City Hall to eat some lasagna and talk a little trash. After all, they said, trash is what they have in common.
Mountains of trash -- trash that costs their governments tons of money to burn in public incinerators or bury in increasingly scarce landfills.
Members of a joint Baltimore City/Baltimore County task force invited officials from Harford, Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties to urge them to consider imposing user fees and taxes to shift the cost of trash disposal onto the shoulders of the people and businesses that generate the most trash.
"We should pay for trash disposal the way we pay for our water," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who convened the meeting along with C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, chairman of the Baltimore County Council.
"That way, we reduce our dependence on property taxes and provide financial incentives for recycling by businesses and residents alike," Mrs. Clarke said.
Members of the task force, which is known as the Baltimore City/Baltimore County Task Force on Waste Stream Management and Reduction, are looking for support among their counterparts in the surrounding counties, saying that it will be easier to persuade residents and businesses to accept the idea of pay-as-you-go trash disposal if it is imposed on a regional basis.
Several of the roughly two dozen county officials said they would at least explore the possibility of adopting a regional approach.
"I think a regional approach is desirable," said Paul R. Farragut, a council member in Howard County, where finding buyers for material collected through recycling programs at times has been a problem. "We're all looking at the same problem."
Specifically, members of the task force are trying to set the stage for user-fee funding for trash-related services.
In Baltimore City, Mrs. Clarke and Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, have proposed legislation they say would encourage recycling and discourage the production and use of items that eventually would have to be thrown away.
These measures include a $10 per ton tax on private trash haulers that use the city's incinerators and landfills, which would generate an estimated $8 million a year. Supporters of the tax say the revenues could shave more than a dime from the city's tax rate of $5.95 per $100 in assessed value, which is by far the highest tax rate in the state.
Another proposal would tax large items that eventually wind up in city landfills, such as refrigerators, washing machines, tires and car batteries.
Such a system would reward recycling, punish the use of non-recyclable materials and end government reliance on property taxes to pay the cost of garbage removal, proponents say.
The cost of collecting and disposing of trash is an increasingly vexing problem for municipal governments, which also must grapple with problems of diminishing landfill space and increasingly stringent federal anti-pollution requirements for municipal incinerators.
Baltimore spends about $43 million a year to dispose of almost a half-million tons of trash; Baltimore County spends about $30 million to dispose of about 350,000 tons.
For the most part, the cost of trash removal is paid from property tax revenue, an arrangement that has become a thorn in the side of city and county lawmakers nettled by constituent hostility over rising property taxes.