Ronnie Polaneczky: Plan to tax trash pickup is recycled garbage

THE THING ABOUT dumb ideas in this town is that they never really die. They come back each March around city budget time. It's a spring ritual, like potholes or the Flower Show.

Today my colleague Catherine Lucey reports that some geniuses in City Hall are likely to include a fee for curbside trash collections in this year's budget proposal.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because the idea was floated last year when the city was also facing a budget gap. Technically, a $5-a-week trash fee for 600,000 households should raise $150 million a year, which the city needed then and needs now.

The idea was floated, and then it sank.

Mayor Nutter took the cash-for-trash message to the neighborhoods, and homeowners reacted as if he'd suggested plunging their hands into hot chicken fat. Our mayor is a veteran of 30 years in city government, but it seems he had to be informed by the voters that trash pickup is a basic city service already paid for by wage taxes and real estate taxes. It's not some fun frill that you bill a la carte.

When Nutter finally announced he'd abandoned the idea, he told the Daily News, "I've listened to citizens and their concerns, many of them practical concerns. . . . I think the public outreach process has been very, very beneficial to us."

So what's changed since then?

Nothing. And if cash-for-trash starts gaining momentum, watch us go through the same song and dance we did last year. Someone will point out that a flat fee is unfair to low-income households, so there will be all sorts of complicated and impractical ideas about how to make it a sliding-scale fee.

Someone will point out that renters will probably ignore the fee, so we'll debate ways to make absentee landlords pony up.

Then comes the notion of a fee-per-bag o' trash, so that people with more garbage pay their fair share. We'd have to buy stickers to put on our trash bags to make them eligible for a ride in a sanitation truck.

Can you think of anything more lame-brained? Last year, this fee-per-bag concept got kicked to the curb in about five seconds. That's how long it took for someone to picture how simple it is, in a city of rowhouse neighborhoods, to drop your trash at someone else's house, or in the nearest vacant lot.

Of course, owners of vacant lots and vacant buildings would be exempt from the household trash fee. How's that for logic? The cash-for-trash fee will only be paid by people who don't cause neighborhood blight!

And what if no one pays? The Water Department shuts off your service if you don't pay your water bill. The Parking Authority takes your car if you don't pay your parking tickets. But what will the city take if you don't pay your trash bill?

Is the Streets Department ready to leave every stinking, unstickered trash bag fester in the summer sun? Of course not.

Are they ready to take everyone to court over a $5-per-week fee? Be serious. Are they going to deploy 200 surveillance teams to nab residents dumping trash in abandoned lots? That's ridiculous. A city that has problems keeping track of unregistered guns is not about to start chasing after unregistered garbage.

The people in City Hall know all of this. As I wrote last year, that's why this isn't a curbside-trash fee at all. It's really just a Chump Tax.

Here's how it goes: The city puts out a regulation, sets a fee, and delivers everyone a bill. The majority of decent, responsible people pay the bill grudgingly. And if thousands of irresponsible or very poor people ignore the bill, City Hall doesn't care. It's too much work to track them all down anyway. Much easier to collect the Chump Tax, count the free money, and let everyone else skate.

Whether we all pay this fee or not, the city will keep picking up everyone's trash. That's a simple matter of public health. And if the fee doesn't bring in the $150 million the city needs because only half the city residents bothered to pay it (which the city assumed would be the case last year, when it was projected to rake in just $85 million to $105 million), the solution is simple: Raise the fee next year.

They're counting on us here in the City of Chumps. We never let them down.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly. com/ronnieblog.