Shock Therapy at Curbside

September 07, 1995

Howard County officials must be employing a bit of psychology in their effort to begin charging residents for each bag of trash collected. Apparently, officials feel shock therapy will make residents more receptive to the idea. How else can one explain a proposal recently unveiled by the Solid Waste Funding Assessment Board?

After some trial-balloon floating, the board last week revealed its first set of recommendations: A startling set of fees that would for the first time have residents paying for their trash collection out of pocket even as their tax dollars continue to fund other solid waste programs. As of January 1997, the report recommends, the county would pick up only one 30-gallon bag a week for an annual charge of $100. Any additional trash would cost a household $1.50 for a 30-gallon bag or 75 cents for each 13-gallon "kitchen can" bag. Apartment dwellers would pay a flat fee of $85 a year regardless of the amount.

The board's standard of one bag per week for homeowners seems unreasonable, especially given the current system's limit of eight bags. Worse, the board ignores any provisions for the poor.

We have long believed the idea of a fee-for-trash system has merit. It forces people to think twice about their disposal habits and has been tried in other jurisdictions in Maryland and across the country with some success. But it should not impose unreasonable restrictions on residents. The county must be wary not to provoke illegal dumping with a fee system that seems overly harsh to residents, who will still pay the same tax bill only it won't fund garbage pickup as it once did.

In fact, the biggest problem for county officials may be in convincing residents that this is not a backdoor tax increase. None of the money raised under the fee schedule would offset the cost of other solid waste programs, including recycling and efforts to eradicate landfill contamination.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who has expressed general support for the recommendations, conceded that selling the program will be difficult. Where solid waste is concerned, none of the options is ever appealing. But in formulating disposal policies, county officials would do well to build on people's concerns about the environment rather than incite their anger over taxation.

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