Trash tax

Our view: If Baltimore can't afford to continue free pickup of bulk refuse, it should consider a fee for the service

May 24, 2010

Nearly every one of the cuts Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has said will be necessary if the city doesn't enact her $50 million tax package will be painful to residents across the city. From police department staffing at the top of the list to graffiti removal at the bottom, virtually every cut could, in ways great or small, imperil the progress Baltimore has made in recent years. That's certainly true of bulk trash pickup, without which city officials are justifiably worried about an increase in illegal dumping of unsightly items such as refrigerators, mattresses and sofas.

That $1.1 million program is toward the bottom of the list of items Ms. Rawlings-Blake intends to restore if the council enacts her revenue proposals, and given the opposition from a majority of the council to the $11 million bottle tax, there's good reason to wonder whether this popular and important service will be left out on the proverbial curb. But unlike most of the other items on the list, bulk trash pickup offers an obvious way for the city to maintain some level of service at lower cost. Baltimore couldn't very well charge for police or fire service, but it would make perfect sense to charge a fee for picking up an old washer or dryer.

Baltimore County tried a similar approach for several years. After ending free bulk trash pickup in the early 1990s, it continued a version of the program, contracting with private waste haulers to collect items for a $15 fee. The county stopped the program altogether in 2003, after the number of participating firms dwindled to two and those who remained asked for the fee to be increased to $20 or $25. Since then, the county has held periodic community clean-up days in which it brings dumpsters to various neighborhoods as a more cost-effective solution to the bulk trash problem.

But the need for the service in the city is much greater. There's a larger population in the city that doesn't have access to a car or other means to dispose of bulk items, and the greater population density magnifies the ill effects of illegal dumping. Besides, the problem of people calling for appointments but forgetting to put their items on the curb, which was part of the county's calculation that bulk trash pickup wasn't worth it, is one city sanitation workers deal with anyway. Enacting a fee schedule certainly wouldn't make that worse — and if the city charged up-front, would probably make it better.

In an average year, the city bulk trash crews go on 58,000 to 65,000 calls, meaning each one costs about $17-$18. Setting a fee to cover the program's costs would seem more than fair. True, there are some who couldn't afford that much, or who would take such a fee as an excuse to dump their trash somewhere for free. Department of Public Works officials who considered the idea of imposing a fee figured that doing so would reduce the number of calls, but even if it did, Baltimore would still be better off than if it eliminated bulk trash pickup altogether. It's not a perfect solution, but given the breadth of ideas Ms. Rawlings-Blake and the council are considering to bring in more revenue, charging residents a fee for the cost of an extra service the city provides is an idea worth discussing.

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