Mayor says trash fee would make city more competitive

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that charging residents for trash collection would actually help the city attract new residents because it could reduce its property tax rate.

Defending a hotly debated proposal in her State of the City speech, the mayor said imposing such a fee while reducing property taxes would help Baltimore compete with surrounding counties.

"Many jurisdictions have a fee for trash service," Rawlings-Blake said. "It's not included as part of their property tax. Their property tax is either artificially low or ours is artificially high. My goal is to get us on an even keel so if there's a comparison of one jurisdiction to the other, it's a fair comparison."

Baltimore is one of only two area jurisdictions that do not charge for trash and recycling collection. Howard County households pay about $225 annually, while Anne Arundel residents pay about $300 per year. In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, households pay upwards of $200 to around $350. Harford and Carroll counties do not provide trash pickup service to their residents, who must hire private contractors.

Only Baltimore County provides trash and recycling pickup with no direct fee.

At $2.268 per $100 of assessed value, Baltimore's property tax rate is the highest in the state. Howard's rate is $1.15, Baltimore County's is $1.10 and Anne Arundel's is $0.91.

Rawlings-Blake said she did not have a specific fee proposal in mind and would "hash out" such details in the coming months.

The mayor first proposed the fee Monday as she called for "bold reforms" to fix a looming financial shortfall, including requiring more city workers to contribute to their retirement fund, asking firefighters to work longer hours and cutting the city workforce by 10 percent over time.

In return, she said, the city could use the savings to raise employee salaries and cut property taxes by 22 percent — 50 cents per $100 of assessed value — over the next decade.

Rawlings-Blake said the administration would "use all the savings to cut property taxes, dollar-for-dollar."

Her call for spending reductions came after a consultant's report said Baltimore is facing a structural deficit of nearly $750 million over the next 10 years

"The main driver is getting Baltimore city's fiscal foundation firm and making sure the structural deficit isn't a legacy of my administration," she said.

Under the proposal, nonprofits, which own $4 billion in property in Baltimore, would no longer receive any free trash pickup services, the mayor said. About one-third of city real estate is tax-exempt, though some large organizations — hospitals and universities — have entered into voluntary payment agreements with the city totaling $20 million over six years.

"Just like we're looking at pensions and health care costs and wellness programs, we have to look at the fact that over $4 billion dollars is off the tax rolls because of not-for-profits," Rawlings-Blake said. "Do not-for-profits contribute to our city? Of course they do. Jobs. Resources. ... But we cannot ignore the fact that we have $4 billion dollars off the tax roll."

Dennis O'Shea, spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University, said he believed a trash fee would have little, if any, effect on the institution. The "vast majority" of the university's trash is hauled by private contractors, he said.

Some City Council members initially balked at the idea of a fee, but they like the idea of reducing property taxes.

"Do we agree with that? No. It's not the way to run a business," said Councilman Carl Stokes of an additional trash fee. "But I think the mayor has seen and her administration has seen that we must make strong adjustments."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke echoed that sentiment.

"My first reaction is no new fees. We are fee'd to death. ... When you talk about another fee, I start backing away," she said. "[But] as long as the property taxes go down comparably and we pick up the nonprofits, then it's very worth talking about."

Councilman William H. Cole IV said he wanted to hear more details but would back any measure that resulted in lower taxes. "Anything we can do to reduce property taxes is something I will support," he said.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad