Trash fee included in levy debate

The Baltimore Sun

As they argued over a proposed $50 annual trash fee increase yesterday, Howard County Council members were given something else to consider -- the total tax burden of county residents compared with those in eight surrounding counties.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks argued that based on his comparison of the nine central Maryland counties, Howard residents pay less in combined taxes and fees than people in six other jurisdictions. Only Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties were lower.

Using the median Howard County household income of $93,050 from 2006 and the average home price of $427,703 from one year ago, Howard residents paid about $1,200 per year less than people with that same income and house value living in Harford County -- rated by Wacks as having the heaviest tax burden in the region.

If proposed tax increases go through, Montgomery County would become the most heavily taxed county starting July 1, bumping Harford to second place. Currently, Baltimore City is second, followed by Montgomery, Frederick, Prince George's and Carroll.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, immediately disputed the survey.

He contended that if the total county budget is divided by the number of county residents, "Howard is one of the highest" taxed jurisdictions. "You can make the numbers say what you want them to," he said.

Wacks said his comparison is valid, although from a Howard County perspective.

"We tried to get as close as we could to an apples-to-apples comparison," he said.

Local economist Anirban Basu, CEO of Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting company, agreed that the comparison is valid, as long as the same base assumptions were used across the board.

"I'm not sure how else you would do it," he said. The comparison measures what taxes the same family would pay if they lived in various other jurisdictions.

Wacks distributed his comparison as several council members questioned the need to increase the trash fee from $175 to $225 next fiscal year, while not compensating with any tax cuts.

County Executive Ken Ulman's budget would leave the county's property tax rate unchanged, but rising state assessments would mean higher tax bills for homeowners. Howard is already at the top legal rate for local income taxes.

"Residents are struggling with this economy. It's another fee we're adding on in tough times," said Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

"Is this the year to be doing it?" Watson asked. She suggested a one-year delay in Ulman's plan, which includes spending $3 million on wheeled blue recycling bins for residents.

"There's no good year to do what you have to do," Wacks replied. He and public works director James M. Irvin argued that the higher fee -- a function of combining recycling costs with trash disposal -- is a necessary step to help prepare for much higher trash costs in the next few years.

"In the long term, this will save county residents money," Wacks said, because more people will recycle more material.

Wacks also gave council members a three-page fact sheet on the fee issue, noting that a pilot distribution of wheeled recycle bins in Elkridge last fall boosted recycling collections 25 percent, while trash volume fell by 10 percent -- a $500,000 savings to the county.

Irvin said many residents don't realize that since Howard has single-stream recycling, residents can dump all their recyclable materials in one container and wheel it to the curb. Having the new bins would make that easier and remind people to use them.

"I think it's a good investment," Irvin told the council.

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