As government becomes ever strapped for cash and woe to raise taxes, fees for service have become popular revenue generators. In Howard County, for example, the Department of Parks and Recreation receives $5.3 million from property and income taxes, a 13 percent drop from five years ago, while income from fees and concessions has soared more than 200 percent to $5.8 million in the same period.
County officials are considering expanding this concept to another local service -- trash collection. It's a good idea. Under consideration are several options, including a proposal to charge county households a per-bag fee for disposal. Other proposals include charging based on a sliding scale tied to volume.
There are sound, pragmatic reasons for moving in this direction. The county's decision to close its Alpha Ridge Landfill and ship solid waste out of the region will raise the cost of disposal greatly. Officials estimate that the switch will increase what the average household pays per year for collection from $120 to as much as $200.
A system like the one Howard County now uses spreads the costs equally among all residents. Such systems force some residents to subsidize those who are heavy users, making it inherently unfair.
Switching to a fee-for-service system would have the additional benefit of focusing attention on the need to recycle and to better control what we throw away and how we do it.
Still, county officials must be mindful of changes that would penalize those least able to afford services in the first place. The needs of the elderly and the poor should be considered as discussions move forward. The county should not place an unfair burden on those in need.
Howard countians may consider all this revolutionary stuff, but the county is in the dark ages regarding garbage disposal.
Cost-per-bag set-ups are in use in several Maryland jurisdictions, from Harford County to the Eastern Shore. Under some systems, private haulers employ a set fee, with a nominal charge per bag, under a buck. Environmentally conscious Seattle has been into this for years. Now, Montgomery County is thinking of piloting a pay-per-bag program. Howard's leaders should give it strong consideration.