Opinion: Let’s be honest about ‘sanitation’ fees

Is anyone else bothered by the fact that Henderson is increasingly becoming a city fueled by its soaring sanitation fee?

Way back in June 2002, we paid $17 a month in the city to get our garbage collected twice a week at the back door and to have Waste Industries come around every two weeks or so and empty our recycling bins at the curb.

Starting July 1, 2002, the city added $3 to the fee, with $2 dedicated to the recycling program to save it. Fine. Recycling is a good thing, and that third dollar adds up to just $12 per year per household.

Last year the City Council confronted the reality of a shrinking tax base and a demand for increased code enforcement by adding $5 — 25 percent — to the sanitation charge, with one-third of that total dedicated to the new Code Compliance Department. Fine. Code enforcement is a good thing, and the extra $3.33 or so per month adds up to just $40 per year per household.

Now we’re facing an increase in the sanitation fee of — well, three days before the budget is to be adopted, we’re not sure how much. It might be $2 more. Or it might be $5 more. Or, given that we started four weeks ago with a budget that proposed lowering the sanitation fee by a buck, we might wind up with a $7 increase or a $10 increase. In fact, City Manager Eric Williams notes each year that the only thing the City Council can’t change once the fiscal year starts next Friday is the property tax rate, so we could raise the sanitation fee by $5 now and add a dollar or two every few months if the council so chooses.

Let’s put those numbers in perspective.

Williams originally proposed a 5-cent increase in the property tax rate. If you own a house assessed at $100,000 — some of us do, some of us don’t — that tax increase would cost you $50 per year. If you own a $120,000 house, the increase is $60. If you don’t own any property in the city, the increase is zero — unless your landlord is kind enough to pass the increase on to you through a rent hike.

If, on the other hand, the city raises the sanitation fee by $5 per month, that will cost each of the roughly 5,300 sanitation customers in the city $60 per year. It doesn’t matter whether they own or rent or whether they live in a mansion on the golf course or a shack on Orange Street.

If the city raises the tax rate by 3 cents and the sanitation fee by $2, that owner of a $100,000 house will pay $54 more per year, and the owner of the $120,000 house will pay $60 more per year. And the family in the Orange Street shack will pay $24 more, not counting any rent increase.

To look at things another way, if the city goes with a $27 sanitation fee, every household will pay $120 more per year than it paid three years earlier. If the fee hits $30, the annual increase will be $156 compared with three years ago.

Meanwhile, the city is making an extra push to publicize its senior-citizen discount for sanitation. Just for being 65 or older, you can save $1 per month on your water bill, and Williams has received no council objection to his plan to double that discount to $2 in the fiscal year that starts next Friday. So the people already in the program can save $12 more per year, and newcomers can pocket an extra $24.

It seems like a lot of trouble for a program with a questionable economic basis: The average person age 65 or older, thanks in part to Social Security and Medicare, is better off financially than the average child, so why have a discount that is age-based, not need-based? But there’s so little money involved that the argument isn’t worth the effort.

The bigger issue is whether we want to be a city that habitually lies to our residents.

The city’s sanitation program doesn’t cost as much as the $25 monthly fee produces, let alone whatever higher fee we end up paying. And sanitation will cost even less once we do the right thing and switch to weekly curbside garbage pickup and handle recycling the same way. But that sanitation fee will keep on rising because it seems like the only fair way to spread the financial burden in a city where most people rent their homes.

We justify some of the increases by earmarking the money for certain projects. But those good intentions are meaningless once the money is thrown into the general fund with other revenues (a lesson worth remembering as the General Assembly struggles with an “education” lottery during its budget battles in the coming weeks and months).

Remember that $2 recycling fee? Well, now curbside recycling actually costs more than $2 per household per month, so that special revenue source doesn’t cover the bill. On the plus side, however, the city was going to keep only half of the recycling fee if it eliminated the recycling program.

Remember that $1.67 per month for the Code Compliance Department? That fee should produce more than $100,000 a year, but Williams is budgeting only $25,000 for contracted services — the pot of money used to tear down houses, chop down weeds and remove trash. It’s true that the department’s total budget exceeds the earmarked revenue, but not if you remove the personnel costs. Director Corey Williams and staffer Pam Glover were on the city payroll years before the city started collecting money earmarked for their department, so they don’t represent an added expense and shouldn’t count against the $100,000.

It doesn’t matter. Regardless of the justification for any particular piece of the sanitation fee, it’s just money for the city to spend. And regardless of where the money comes from, the problem is on the spending side. But it looks as if an honest discussion about what the city can do, or stop doing, to make a serious dent in spending will have to wait for another year.

The decision for the City Council in the next few days is how to collect the required revenue.

We don’t want to see any property tax increase, but money is money. If a homeowner has to pay $60 more, that money is coming out of the same pocket, regardless of whether the memo line on the check reads “property tax” or “sanitation.” The property tax also has the benefit of being progressive — the owner of a $1 million house pays more than the renter of a $200-per-month house — while a sanitation fee hits everyone equally. And if one of our problems in this city is that we have too much rental housing, what’s wrong with making the owners of those homes pay a bigger portion of the city budget, as they would with a property tax increase instead of a sanitation fee increase?

We’re not calling for a property tax increase. We just think the fairness issue gets twisted sometimes. If we must do something to raise revenue, the best option is probably the 3-cent, $27 combination proposed Tuesday by Elissa Yount and incorporated into the latest budget proposal Wednesday.

But in the future, as in next month, let’s take a comprehensive look at making the city government a less expensive institution. And let’s see if we can separate the sanitation fee into two components on the water bill: the sanitation charge, roughly representing the actual cost of garbage and recycling collection; and the household surcharge, representing the amount the city is taking for general operations. amoritize loanmailing address ameriloanadoption loandsloans alltrust11-12-07 journals loan officers onloan mta 80 credit 609 scoreunion loan origination system alliant creditacs loans mefatexas process accion microloanalaska amp loan sharing resource interlibrary