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March 30, 2004

Talking Trash

Alan Imhoff

At a recent neighborhood gathering the subject of the "trash fee" found its way into the discussion of the evening. A lively discussion at that, with the serious interlaced with the ridiculous. The main tenet of the conversation evolved into the right of a city resident to opt out of being assessed the fee.

In explaining how the City of Frederick was to take a service provided currently from revenues generated out of the General Fund (read property taxes here as the main source of those revenues) and in the age of "fee" dumb (not to be confused with freedom) made into a separate item similar to an enterprise fee.

Well, back to the party, as the discussion waxed and waned from good idea to bad idea, some really interesting questions started to be asked. I did not take any notes, so you should treat the following as unsubstantiated hearsay.

Also, since I am not a lawyer, any of the following must be considered as speculative in nature. What follows is a loose transcription of that discussion and the interjection of a personal interpretation on comments or questions made.

By the time the dust was beginning to settle on whether or not the fee was appropriate, several neighbors honed in a major premise that raised my curiosity. The discussion centered on whether or not an individual, group of individuals, a homeowners' association or anyone else for that matter could opt out of the fee.

Their logic was very simple, since the City of Frederick has no municipal dump for household waste, it collects the trash and hauls it to the county's landfill where it is assessed, like anyone or any business or any other jurisdiction wanting to use that dump, a per ton fee. Since the fee is going to be raised, the city wants to pass on the increase directly to the user.

Sounds logical, but here it begins to get a little tricky. One person suggested that - in essence - the city, by moving the cost of providing this service out of the realm of general taxation and into this special quarterly fee (remember the proposal is to bill quarterly on the water and sewer bill), perhaps has become a de facto commercial trash hauler under a no bid scenario.

Boy did that light up the conversation. Round and round the discussion went then the potential options began to spill out. Perhaps the city, as a de facto commercial hauler, could look for a cheaper place to deposit our trash, perhaps Washington County, perhaps over in West Virginia in Jefferson County. The logic being if there were sufficient savings in the cost per ton, even with the additional expense of taking it to the other site, the overall cost might be less.

Then the really interesting questions began to flow. Suppose, one neighbor said, everyone along our street decided to look for an alternative collector, rather than using the city trash trucks. If we struck up a reasonable deal with a contract hauler, it might even save us some money and we wouldn't have all the restrictions being proposed by the city.

The more the discussion followed this line of thinking, it became more evident that it was really an idea worth pursuing.

Then someone interjected a minor but interesting point. When we pay our property taxes we are allowed to use the sum as a deduction on our federal and state income taxes. If this fee becomes a reality we would lose, albeit a small amount, that amount as a deduction.

This soon evolved into an economic discussion that if a private citizen or business could opt out of the program, the city's costs to provide would - of necessity - consistently rise as fewer and fewer accounts would be paying the overhead. Wow, did the questions now begin to hit all over the place.

One neighbor said he understood that the proposed operating budget was not reduced one cent by this shift of trash from general fund to special fund.

Others countered that the budget should be reduced proportionately and, if significant enough, reduction of the tax rate should follow.

Another neighbor said if the city could do this and do it without any cost/benefit analysis she might have to question the legality, in essence a monopoly in constraint of free enterprises there are plenty of commercial trash haulers out in the county today.

I will not even begin to attempt to transcribe the discussion after this as the length of the evening was evidently taking its toll. Suffice it to say the discussion on all the proposed changes to what would and would not be picked up, the introduction of newer technologies to assist in collection method and all the potential exemptions or partial credits had its fair share of debate.

The party ended, but not the discussion. Till next time.



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