Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Let's make sure the trash fee doesn't completely stink

According to reports that first appeared in the Daily News, Mayor Nutter's budget proposal tomorrow will include a fee for trash collection. The idea, which was floated but abandoned by the administration last year, would generate over $100 million (the city has a $150 million budget gap).

Let's make sure the trash fee doesn't completely stink

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According to reports that first appeared in the Daily News, Mayor Nutter's budget proposal tomorrow will include a fee for trash collection. The idea, which was floated but abandoned by the administration last year, would generate over $100 million (the city has a $150 million budget gap).

There are basically two forms that a trash fee could take. The first would be a flat fee for every household, which would be in the neighborhood of $25 per month. Another option is Pay-As-You-Throw, where residents would be charged for every bag they use.

Though we don't know yet for sure, it appears that the Nutter Administration has chosen the first option, leaving open the possiblity of reducing the fee for low-income residents. But for many reasons, we think Pay-As-You-Throw is a better idea.

First of all, it's fair. If the city imposed a flat fee, a single person would pay the same as a household with eight people. Obviously, the bigger family generates a lot more trash. Pay-As-You-Throw only charges people for the waste they actually generate, which means that they're paying a fair price for the services they use.

Pay-As-You-Throw fits in with the broader goal of environmental sustainability, as well. Residents are encouraged to produce less waste and get rewarded by paying a lower price. This could also encourage households that generate a lot of waste to change their habits and be more environmentally responsible.

Speaking of changing habits, we also have concerns with the structure of the subsidy for low-income residents. We should provide help to people who are struggling, but a reduced rate for poor households does nothing to encourage conservation. It reminds us of a similar program provided by Philadelphia Gas Works. Because low-income residents have no incentive to conserve heat, those households wind up consuming more resources.

How would Pay-As-You-Throw actually work? One option: the city provides special trash bags. The bags might be a specific color or just have a label, and could be purchased at any government building or convenience stores. City workers would only pick up these types of bags during garbage collection. Another option: a subscription service, where people sign up for how many bags per week they’ll pay for; the onus is on the trash collectors to keep tabs each week. ( Among other places, Lower Merion Township uses this system.)

Of course, some will argue that pay as you throw could never work -- that people will cheat the system. And it is true that illegal dumping and trash burning could increase. But according to the Department of Environmental Protection, Pay-As-You-Throw is already the law in more than 200 municipalities in Pennsylvania. If it can work in other parts of the state, surely it can work here as well.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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