Residents voice spirited opposition to trash fee Ecker's proposal tied to property tax cut


Of the 30 Howard County residents who spoke against a proposed $125 trash fee last night, no one was more candid about her own garbage than 70-year-old Fronda Port.

Ms. Port told the County Council that because she recycled as much as possible she should not have to pay $125 while others don't do their share.

Then Ms. Port described this week's waste stream at her Kings Contrivance home: one milk carton (collapsed), one orange juice carton (collapsed), several paper napkins and tissues, small miscellaneous items, "and a chicken bone."

Encouragement of recycling is one of the issues the council will consider as it debates the merits of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed trash plan. Among the complaints aired last night:

* The proposed four-bag weekly limit -- although it would be a decrease from the current eight-bag limit -- does not go far enough to encourage recycling.

* The $125 fee is worse than a tax increase because it cannot be deducted from federal taxes.

* The fee is regressive because it would be coupled with a 4-cent property tax break. Several speakers pointed out that owners of very expensive homes would receive such a large tax cut that their trash collection would become virtually free.

Three local delegates to the General Assembly also spoke against the plan.

"We strongly urge the County Council to reject this fiscally and environmentally flawed proposal," said Del. Shane Pendergrass. Only one speaker spoke in favor of the proposal.

The county is facing skyrocketing garbage disposal costs. By the year 2005, Howard could spend an extra $15 million a year over what it spends now, according to the Department of Public Works.

Mr. Ecker proposed the $125 trash fee last month. County officials predicted it would bring in $8 million a year. When the fee is coupled with the proposed property tax cut, the net gain would be $5.3 million, county officials estimate.

For the owner of a house worth $204,828 -- the county's average sale price last year -- the trash fee would be partially offset by a $32.77 tax cut under Mr. Ecker's plan.

But for the 83 county residents who own homes valued at $780,000 or more, the trash fee would be offset almost entirely by savings from the proposed 4-cent tax cut.

The fee probably would remain flat for three years but could increase as garbage disposal increases, public works officials said.

"I am concerned about this fee," council member C. Vernon Gray said. "Where will it end?"

In proposing the trash fee, Mr. Ecker rejected the recommendations of the Solid Waste Funding Assessment Board.

Last year, the board recommended a much stricter "pay-as-you-throw" policy that would have charged homeowners for each bag. In Maryland, only Aberdeen and Chevy Chase have such a system.

Mr. Ecker said such a policy would force homeowners to use a sticker system on trash bags -- which would be inconvenient. At public hearings last fall, many citizens agreed.

But the board's chairman, John Hollerbach, has said that Mr. Ecker's limits are not strict enough because the average Howard citizen generates only about three containers of trash per week.

Many speakers last night also made that point.

"A flat fee gives [residents] little incentive to reduce the amount of trash they produce because changing their individual behavior will not affect what they, as individuals, pay for trash," said Scott Muller of Ellicott City.

Darrel Drown, the council chairman, said last night that he eventually may try to limit the number of bags to two a week.

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