Editorial: Cash for trash?

On Thursday, Mayor Michael Nutter will give his third budget address. City officials are forecasting a deficit of $150 million, which means more tough choices are ahead. One option reportedly being considered is a new fee for residential trash collection. According to today's News editorial, that might be puzzling to some residents.

We expect the fee to be met with another question, this from taxpayers: What the hell do we pay taxes for anyway, if we can't even get trash pickup for free?

Our instinctual response is to agree, at least to the question. And while there are a host of logistical questions to answer on such a fee, we think it's a good time to address the more philosophical question that such a fee suggests: What the hell do we pay our taxes for?

So what exactly are we paying for? The answer isn't hard to find.

The actual answer may surprise many Philadelphians. Because the actual answer is that our taxes go to pay for pensions and health benefits of city employees, prisons, debt service and social services. In that order. Those are the largest categories of city expenditures.

So why is the city spending so much money? The editorial argues that one big reason is the large number of poor people in Philadelphia.

But an even bigger factor in the city's budget is our high poverty rate. In this city, nearly 20 percent of families fall below the poverty line. That means high expenditures for human services. But it also means that by nature of their low salaries or lack of employment, a huge segment of the city contributes little to the city coffers. The city derives half of its tax revenue from the wage tax (the real-estate, business and sales taxes are the next three big categories). Those revenues have taken a hit, and high unemployment will rob the city's coffers.

If wage earners, businesses and property owners carry more than their fair share of the burdens of the city budget, shouldn't they get their trash picked up as a result? What is reasonable to expect from our taxes?

That's the real discussion that the trash-fee idea should generate. Are our taxes simply the price of admission to live in a large diverse city, with services increasingly on a pay-as-you-use basis? If the trash-fee idea fails, what other services are citizens willing to give up instead?

What do you think? Would a trash fee be fair or should the city find other ways to deal with the impending fiscal crisis?

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