Cutting trash pickups makes sense

Urban Chronicle

Budget: Reducing services would be more beneficial to residents than proposed taxes.

April 29, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IN THE coming great debate over whether to raise taxes or cut services in Baltimore, put me down as favoring reducing trash pickups to once a week and opposing proposals to slap levies on my telephone lines and energy bills.

Sorry, but I'm just trying to live smarter here.

By my calculations, it would be a helluva lot cheaper for me to buy an extra garbage can than it would be to pay the extra taxes Mayor Martin O'Malley introduced to the City Council this week as part of a plan to close the city's projected $40 million budget gap.

At Home Depot in Reisterstown Plaza, a Rubbermaid 32-gallon Brute Trash Can was selling this week for $24.94. (There was also a cheaper Roughneck on sale for $8.97, but I'm trying to be fair here.) The can is likely to last me for years, providing nobody steals it or the city's trash trucks don't run over it, both of which have happened in the past.

At the proposed $3.50 per month per telephone-line tax, my two land phones and one cell phone would cost me $10.50 per month in extra taxes, or $126 per year. The proposed 4 percent energy tax would run me $48 a year on my approximately $1,200 annual Baltimore Gas and Electric bill for my electricity, gas stove and hot water heater. I don't even want to think what my taxes would be on the oil to heat my house because, given current prices, I don't want to think what I paid for the oil.

I know not all the money raised by the proposed taxes -- which would also impose energy levies on manufacturers and nonprofit groups and include an increase in the tax on property sales -- would go to keep twice-weekly trash pickups. But a chunk of it would. My point is that the City Council should consider previously unthinkable alternatives before raising taxes on residents -- again.

It was just three years ago that the city raised its income tax by 20 percent. At the time, O'Malley argued that it would "take a few years" before investments in crime-fighting and other programs were "reflected in our city's growing and healthier revenue base."

Now the city is back, looking to raise taxes. If the idea is simply to raise taxes until the city gets on sounder financial footing, why don't any of the proposals have sunset provisions? And what happens in three years if the growth in the revenue base doesn't keep up with the growth in expenses?

The mistake government too often makes is that it raises or lowers taxes based on its own agenda and needs, not the needs of the people it serves.

In seeking to increase taxes on residents, O'Malley argues that $40 million in cuts to a fiscal year 2005 operating budget of $1.7 billion, or about 2.2 percent, is too painful to absorb. But there's no evidence that the regressive energy and phone tax would be any less painful for a populace whose median household income is about $30,000 a year.

In fact, the evidence is that taxpayers are already hurting. The source is the city's own budget. The document says income tax revenue is projected to decline 2.5 percent, due to deductions from past stock market losses, fewer jobs and "the stagnation of income growth."

I'm skeptical that all potential savings have been wrung out of the budget, notwithstanding CitiStat and the reduction in the number of city workers over the years. The source is the recently eliminated, unregulated $100,000-a-year council expense system. Neither council members nor the mayor identified it as a wasteful extravagance, let alone questionably legal operation, until its existence was exposed by three of my colleagues at The Sun. What other expenses lurk beneath the budget's dry-sounding line items?

Ultimately, the city must decide what's essential -- and what's not. Which brings me back to trash pickups.

At a news conference this week, City Council President Sheila Dixon said the council would keep an open mind about whether to cut services or raise taxes, but opined that a once-a-week pickup schedule "would take Baltimore back at least 20 years in how clean Baltimore is."

But the problem the city has with trash stems from illegal dumping and littering. If Baltimore got cleaner without increasing pickups, how does it follow that decreasing pickups would make the city dirtier?

During the debate, maybe a council member will express the wisdom articulated by then-first-term Councilman Martin O'Malley in an argument over raising taxes 11 years ago: "We can no longer sit and watch the city engage in the fiscal cannibalism of eating our own taxpayers."

I printed the story in which that comment was made from The Sun's electronic archive. I plan to hold on to it for the next couple of months. Let's see if I get to throw it out in my new trash can.

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