Taxes vs. user fees

Mar. 22, 2014 @ 03:31 PM

It is one of the most routine paradoxes in government – residents dearly want public services, but they can be averse to paying for them.

Most people wouldn’t put it that bluntly, of course, and they probably don’t think in quite those terms. But that’s often the collective effect of what we tell our elected representatives.

So especially in the tax-shy political climate of recent years, it is no surprise that Mayor Bill Bell and a slim majority of the City Council last year found a way to raise more money to help pay for trash-collection trucks and otherwise meet costs in the Solid Waste Management Department without levying an increase in city residents’ property tax.

Instead, the city instituted a $1.80-a-month trash collection fee for homeowners.

On the one hand, as the council majority that favored the fee noted, that route rather than a tax increase meant the added cost hit only those who benefited from the city’s curbside trash collection. Businesses, for example, that don’t get curbside pickup would be spared that added cost.

There’s some logic in that argument, although it would seem a slippery slope.  The broad contract between citizens and government is that we all pay for services perceived to be in the public interest, even though not all of us will use every one, or at all times.

Should elderly shut-ins pay taxes to support parks and recreation centers they probably will never use?  If you walk most places you go or ride a bike should you pay the same for street upkeep as the guy who drives a monster SUV?

And in another but parallel context, should the childless or those whose kids have long since moved into adulthood pay taxes for schools?

What appears to be an emerging majority of the council signaled last week that the fee’s live span may prove short. There is sentiment for dropping the fee and instead raising taxes to pay for trash collection.  Don Moffitt, a council member who supported the fee last year but has changed his position, figured an increase of six-tenths of a cent in the tax rate would bring in roughly the same revenue as the fee.

That $1.80 a month fee comes to $21.60 a year, which might seem like a paltry amount. But that’s relative, and is likely more noticeable – and painful – to someone lower in the income scale than the owner of a million-dollar home.

It’s that relative difference in impact that generated opposition to the fee last year and is driving sentiment against it on the council now. In eliminating the fee, “you are replacing what some people see as a regressive fee with a less regressive tax,” Councilman Eddie Davis said. Davis, who was not on the council last year, was one of four council members who encouraged reconsidering the fee Thursday.

On balance, we’re inclined to agree with that position. Trash collection is in the interest of all, and costs should be shared broadly and equitably.