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Jason Miller County Council at Large


March 23, 2004

Nickel and Dimeing Taxpayers v. Exploding Bureaucracy

Alan Imhoff

A series of letters to the editor in our local newspapers have been illustrating the "nickel and dime" approach to the government's handling of the budget crisis. Seems the City of Frederick has chosen this approach as their main source of new revenue since another property tax hike might not sit well with the voters next year.

Whether at state, county or local level, tax dollars are not living up to expectations, while budgets still increase of their own accord, forcing elected leaders to make tough decisions. But rather than make the really tough decisions, they collectively have opted out for the least intrusive manner to "nickel and dime" us out of more money for services that are essential - or are they?

The City of Frederick took the lead last week when the mayor's budget proposal included a rather nifty shift-a-roo on trash collection. Seems as though in her efforts to make most departments follow the "pay for their own costs" mantra, solid waste disposal for the city now needs to become an "enterprise fund" along with water and sewer. In fact, it is proposed to show up on the quarterly water and sewer invoice.

Inherently there is not much wrong with this concept, the county already has Solid Waste set up as an enterprise fund. So the question is: Can the city set up its waste collection expenses under an enterprise fund rather than an operating expense?

Most enterprise funds are set up for primarily two reasons. First is the intensive up front costs to provide capital assets to provide the service; and second is the inordinate amount of time to build those assets. Water and sewer enterprise funds have easily understood methods to collect reasonable and proportionate usage fees for consumption that in turn provide for their capital expenditures.

Now comes the City of Frederick to break out garbage collection from its operating budget and set it up like an enterprise fund, without the need to provide for large amounts of capital outlay over the long term. Then to make it appear like an easily managed usage scheme, a convoluted process is being proposed to assure "fairness."

With no device similar to a water meter, the city will increase the workload of existing staff to monitor the piles of trash from each household and then make an arbitrary determination based on "historical knowledge" of the household's previous piles. Does this mean pictures need to be accumulated for a legal defense in case of a challenge or lawsuit?

Senior citizens can apply for certain credits, as long as they fill out the appropriate paperwork to reduce their fair share of the costs. Does this mean that a family of four today could apply for a price break when two of the family members move out to go to college? Or when the unfortunate happens and a family member passes away?

Does that mean that we should register the number of persons per household and have to fill out annual certifications, or provide a copy of our federal tax return for the number of deductions to better calculate "average consumption," to develop an "average waste" rate for city residents?

Then, what about workload for existing staff? At what point will "trash readers" need to be hired to more accurately reflect changes in "average waste" to insure that households are paying their fair share?

In addition to "trash readers," the city may have to start a new department of trash, with a section for "trash accumulation records" for trending analysis to properly assess the enterprise costs to an annually adjusted rate(s). And since this might be a new department specifically set up to handle this fund, its expenses could in turn be aggregated into the cost of providing service.

Then there is the rate schedule that needs to be developed, then monitored (hence the need for trash readers) and fairly applied (hence the need for trash accumulation records).

Like most things of late in the city, a multi-tiered rate system will be developed based on historical records (a.k.a. guesswork from the current employees involved with their collective expertise), which, when implemented, will also need an enforcement process. Another new role for the inspections department or will a separate trash enforcement section need to be added to the new department of trash collection AND enforcement?

And, what about fines? I will leave that for another time.

If this passes, one can only wonder where this will lead for next year. Perhaps the city can mandate that residents be implanted with a biochip to record their use of the park system, develop a historical record and then have a "walk in the park fee." Or, for the owners of pets, a "pooper scooper" fee to insure only licensed pooper scoopers are correctly used when a "dump" is made in the parks or along city sidewalks.

It might only be a nickel here or a dime there. But these fees add up quickly to real dollars.



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