Freezing Tipping Fees May Come Back To Haunt County

A SECOND LOOK

Holding Charge At $15 Really Could Hurt If Investment Income Falls

April 28, 1991|By Darren M. Allen

Yes, the County Commissioners were able to hold the line on propertytaxes and maintain this county's ridiculously low $15 landfill tipping fee for at least another year.

And, yes, they were able to do it without county employee layoffs, without significant cuts in government services and without much pain to county residents.

But while keeping the metropolitan area's lowest tipping fee may play well politically, it is short-sighted and irresponsible. It doesnothing to begin solving Carroll's solid-waste disposal problems, and the commissioners are banking on $650,000 next year that they aren't even sure will exist.

Commissioner President Donald I. Dell and Commissioner Julia W. Gouge were happy to maintain the status quo.

And while Commissioner Vice President Elmer C. Lippy Jr. concurred in his colleagues' decision, he did so with a bit of hedging.

"I don't want to look good now only to have the county put into a worse quagmire later," the freshman commissioner said as the group deliberated a couple of weeks ago.

Unfortunately, should political pragmatism carry the day for another year, a worse quagmire is inevitable.

Nobody wants higher taxes -- not the taxpayer, not the investor and certainly not government.

And nobody really wants to see the solid waste problem pile up to more critical levels.

But, it seems, the pocketbook is the real measure of how far the county is willing to go, even if standing pat in the short term inevitably leads to long-term headaches.

The county's Department of Natural Resource Protection has the right idea, from both a solid waste standpoint and a fiscal standpoint.

In early March, James E. Slater, the department's director, proposed a set of dumping fees that would allow solid waste disposal to pay for itself and even step up recycling efforts.

Slater says the county has not only a legal but a moral obligation to properly manage trash. The proposed fee structure would, in Washington parlance, leave trash and its removal and recycling "off budget."

That structure would provide over passing years for ever-increasing tipping fees that would, in turn, provide economic inducement for recycling.

The higher tipping fees would be separate from the general operating budget and, next year at least, leave it $650,000 richer.

That figure is the amount needed from the fiscal 1992 budget to "subsidize" the solid waste enterprise fund.

That figure also is an amount of money the county isn't sure will actually be there later in the budget year.

Originally slated to be written off, the $650,000 is the amount the budget office estimated could be lost should the nation's credit markets reflect lower interest rates. Since the county has more than $40 million in investments earning interest, a downturn in the rates they earn on that investment means less income.

As a contingency, the county is looking for places to chop an additional$650,000 from the budget should the interest rate fall. While details on possible cuts are not available, one can only guess that social services that were barely spared earlier this budget season are againprime targets.

So, in the interest of placating town mayors who complained that higher tipping fees would devastate their budgets, in the interest of doing the politically "right" thing, the commissioners have put the county in the precarious position of trashing social services for the convenience of being able to put off the trash disposal issue for yet another year.

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