and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
March #1

Trash tax passed off as a fee
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Friday, March 4, 2005

I have attended conferences on national tax issues in Washington, D.C. On Beacon Hill, I have fought politicians, Big Business, the public employee unions, and a wide range of special-interest groups who always want more of my money but don't worry overly much about how well services are provided. But as the late Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local."

I'll always remember where I came from, and where my personal taxpayer outrage began and still resides a Massachusetts town with manipulative officials and "spend-happy, don't-worry-about-tomorrow" Town Meetings.

In the beginning it was Danvers, where as a new resident in 1972, I attended local meetings to express concern about high property taxes and experienced for the first time the entitled arrogance of school committees. After being told to "get used to it folks, they're going up every year," my husband moved us to Marblehead, where I got involved as a member of the town Finance Committee.

Back then, the major problem was School Committee fiscal autonomy, which forced Town Meetings to give the educational establishment anything it wanted. Prop 2 repealed that law of favoritism in 1980, and some fine Marblehead selectmen served the town well for over a decade. I felt rather lucky, as I was in a position to observe badly run towns do some outrageous things to their taxpayers.

But I've never seen anything like the Great Marblehead Trash Threat of 2003, which is presently being followed by a proposal for a "pay-as-you-throw" tax that the town is trying to sell as a fee.

In 2002, Marblehead expenditures increased by 8.6 percent. But in 2003, the town wanted more money for a variety of town departments. So it threatened to drop trash pickup altogether on July 1 if voters didn't approve a permanent, general override in June. 

I still have the "Vote Yes on 3 for Marblehead Services" flier. And I quote: "Vote Yes. Maintain Public Safety, Town Curbside trash pickup, athletic fields, quality schools ... Remember: YES means continued town curbside trash pickup for LESS THAN the cost of private trash pickup. Property tax increase of $162 for median home."

There was no "pay-as-you-throw" alternative. Voters were told to approve the override or haul our own trash to the dump for the rest of our aging, arthritic lives.

I had my own recommendation: Call the town's bluff, reject the override, put your trash on the curb as usual in July during the Marblehead Arts Festival. When the tourists leave and the rats and Centers for Disease Control arrive, the town will back down. 

But not enough voters shared my sense of drama. Seniors, who often vote their fixed incomes, voted their fear of eventually being too feeble to haul their own trash to the dump. The override passed. Town curbside trash pickup was assured for our 162 extra dollars a year. Or so we were told.

Now, two years later, the town leaders, with the exception of Selectman John Liming, want a "pay-as-you-throw" fee. This time, they are not placing the issue on the ballot, where voters with memories can reject it; they are counting on supporters to pack the Special Town Meeting on March 16 to pass it.

The present proposal will force us to buy yellow trash bags for $2 each. There is a 15-gallon bag available for $1, but most of us, even recyclers, would need two of them. This "fee" will cost most households $104 a year on top of the thousands we pay now including the $162 that we were told "maintains trash pickup."

Since the fee is set by the Board of Health, which is outside Prop 2's jurisdiction, I predict that the town will start charging the board for police protection and the maintenance of the roads the trucks use to get to our curbs. Then, the bag fee can be increased to meet town demands for reimbursement.

If we go to the dump ourselves, we must still use those yellow bags, and there is talk of having a "dump cop" enforce this. I assume he will be armed so irate taxpayers who have paid the recently hiked $50 dump fee, but don't have the proper yellow bags, can be shot and their bodies easily disposed of at the site.

The city of Beverly is also discussing trash fee options. One of its proposals, an annual flat "fee," is really a tax and subject to a court challenge since there is no attempt to charge people by the amount they actually throw away. Another proposal that would have the city issue wheeled bins to every household and charge the same whether the bin is full or not is also a tax.

Beverly's third option and the Marblehead "pay-as-you-throw" proposal would be true "user fees" if they were replacing present taxes. But they are being added to pay for services that are presently covered by our property tax bills. We pay more, but get less.

And in Marblehead, we get to let ourselves be trashed once again. 

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.