THE AMPLE EVIDENCE emerging suggests that Howard officials will ultimately soften their proposed plan to charge county residents fees based on the amount of trash they generate. In addition to an ambiguous answer from County Executive Charles Ecker as to whether he supports the proposal, other officials have been quick to point out the tentativeness of the plan.
At a public hearing last week, irate residents all but promised that illegal dumping would be their response to a by-the-bag trash payment plan. Whether people will actually risk fines and the trouble of smuggling their refuse into the woods is unknown, although the specter of already overburdened law enforcement officials on Dumpster watch should give officials cause for concern.
Given the administration's apparent less-than-full commitment and the public's dislike for this proposal, modification may well be the only way to save it. Critics say that the proposal charge of $100 a year to pick up one bag of trash per week, and 75 cents to $1.50 for each additional bag, is unreasonable. Whether residents would be more amenable to lower fees has yet to be tested, but it should be.
The point officials must stress is that the alternative to a fee system is not necessarily more attractive. To meet the county's solid waste needs by the year 2002 without a fee, taxes would have to be increased by as much as 25 cents per $100 of assessed value, officials estimate. For a home assessed at $200,000, a taxpayer would pay an additional $200 a year -- in the end, not very different from what the county would charge under a per-bag fee system.
As in most matters involving solid waste, there are no easy solutions. Ironically, residents support efforts to encourage recycling, even as they reject the idea of a per-bag charge, which is designed precisely to get people to recycle more and pay greater heed to their disposal habits. It is a system that has worked successfully elsewhere in Maryland and the nation.
County officials need to approach this problem a little more resolutely. Residents need to feel they are being treated reasonably, and they need to buy into the notion that a fee system based on trash volume is good and equitable for all. If there's a better approach for dealing with this problem, we've yet to hear it.