Howard's mounting trash problem

March 20, 1992

Howard County Executive Charles Ecker's plan to charge each household $70 a year to collect trash and recyclables has been roundly criticized by residents and the county council, with some justification. He wants to charge a flat fee for trash pickups in return for a 7-cent cut in the property tax rate. Eventually, the money would flow into a pool to pay for Howard's solid waste needs.

What Mr. Ecker is suggesting is filled with practical problems. But the underlying notion, an attempt to take trash disposal off the back of property taxes, is a good one. Environmental mandates, recycling and sheer volume have sent garbage disposal costs soaring. Nationally, solid waste has moved up from the 10th costliest item in local budgets to No. 2. In Howard, the trash-per-person rate is inching up 3 percent annually -- an extra $2 million in disposal costs. County officials view the $70 fee as a way of giving people a sense of the true cost of garbage disposal. Once Howard's recycling plan, serving 55,000 homes, is fully operational, officials figure that collection and disposal will run $220 per household.

But Mr. Ecker's proposal unwisely links a cut in property taxes and a flat fee for garbage pickups. This is regressive. An owner of a $150,000 house would pay the same amount as the owner of a home costing five times as much, yet the latter gets a bigger break on property taxes. Missing, too, is any economic incentive to recycle -- $70 covers the cost whether the garbage man picks up half a bag or a half dozen bags. Even now, such flat fees are being re-evaluated in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties in favor of by-the-bag rates that reward people for leaving less at the curb.

For all its flaws, Mr. Ecker's proposal underscores the need for new ways of thinking about trash collection in the context of recycling and escalating costs. Moving away from traditional landfills and the accompanying environmental problems is essential at a time when Americans on average discard a half-ton of trash a year. Just this month, Howard County officials discovered ground water contamination on the sites of two old landfills. The price of stopping the contamination: upwards of $7 million.

The underlying idea of Mr. Ecker's plan, despite its hostile reception, is sound. Any proposal to charge people for something they once got for free is bound to be challenged. Mr. Ecker might want to consider forming a coalition of citizens groups, environmentalists and waste experts to come up with a more acceptable option. This approach worked well for him with Howard's adequate-facilities legislation. It could be the best way to solve Howard's mounting trash problem.

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