Panel ponders ways to finance trash collection

June 01, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Putting out the garbage is too easy, in the eyes of a Howard County waste-finance panel -- so the group is looking for ways to make it more painful.

Along with steps encouraging more recycling and reuse, the panel is giving serious consideration to making every county household pay for each bag or can of garbage put out on the curb -- at a rate of perhaps $2 or $3 a bag. It is to make its final recommendations by September.

"You ask people how much they pay for garbage collection, and they'll say, 'What are you talking about, it's free,' " said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget administrator and a member of the finance panel, the county's Solid Waste Funding Assessment Board.

The board is trying to find a formula by which the county can meet its solid-waste disposal bills, which are expected to soar over the next few years.

The reason: County officials have decided to temporarily close the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill and ship trash out of the county and most likely out-of-state.

It now costs the county about $120 a year to collect and dispose of trash from each household. The county pays for the service out of its general fund, which is fed by county property and income taxes.

Moving away from controversial landfilling to shipping trash elsewhere could raise the county's collection and disposal costs to as much as $200 per home. That would pay for private contractors to collect the waste and haul it out of the county, for closing the county's only operating landfill and correcting environmental damage at it and two other closed county landfills.

To pay for that -- and encourage people to generate less trash -- the panel appointed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker hopes dTC to find a way to charge residents separately for trash pickup.

Board member Steven C. Smith, a businessman who also works with the county's economic development authority, compared trash collection to the use of electricity and water in an apartment building. Few people worry about saving on those utilities when they're included in the rent.

"The minute they have their own meters, there are dramatic drops in utilities," Mr. Smith said yesterday during one of the weekly meetings of the trash study group. "If they don't have to pay for it, they don't think about it."

One of the main ideas the board is considering is allowing county residents one large bag or can of trash a week free and then charging for any more than that. "If you had a party, then you'd have to go out and buy extra bags at $2 or $3 a bag," Mr. Wacks said.

That idea is among several alternatives to no-charge trash collection being used by about 2,000 jurisdictions nationwide, said Lisa A. Skumatz of Skumatz Economic Research Associates Inc., a waste-financing consultant in Seattle, who lectured the board last week about those methods.

In Seattle, which is probably the largest city with such a system, residents pay according to the size of trash can they put out.

Some Seattle residents use a "micro" that holds only 10 gallons, collected weekly. Others use a "mini" that holds 19 gallons.

Larger trash generators can rent 30- , 60- or 90-gallon cans that are picked up and dumped by automated trucks, said Ms. Skumatz, who worked for the Seattle city government for three years and has written manuals on trash collection for the federal government and several state governments.

Other alternatives include:

* Paying for bags with a county logo on them, bags that would be required.

* Buying stickers to put on other bags or containers.

* A hybrid system that charges residents for a basic level of service, such as one bag or can, and then requires them to pay for additional trash receptacles.

* An experimental, weight-based system that requires garbage collectors to weigh each bag of trash left out.

One of the problems with charging fees, Mr. Wacks warned the board yesterday, is that unlike county taxes, the fee could not be deducted from residents' state and federal income taxes.

But among its benefits is fairness, said board member Pat Dornan, president of the Howard County Taxpayers' Association.

In 1990, county officials proposed charging residents a flat annual fee of $70 per household to cover collection costs.

"The trash tax was received very negatively," he said, because many county residents felt it was unfair to charge everyone the same fee when not everyone put out the same amount of trash.

The problem for taxpayers, he told board members, is the prospect of the tax simply being added with no relief from the county's existing tax burden.

To keep such a fee as low as possible, board members appear to agree that some trash costs should continue to be paid out of the general fund.

Board Chairman Jack Hollerbach described those costs as the more "positive sides" of the county trash service, including recycling, composting, and cleaning up and closing landfills.

Not charging residents extra for bulk trash, which includes large items like mattresses and refrigerators, would discourage scofflaws from dumping such items illegally, board members said.

County Executive Ecker has given the board until Sept. 1 to come up with a recommendation for funding the county's waste management program.

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