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Garbage Politics

City Council candidates learn to love the trash fee

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Thanks to political gadfly John Kromko, the city of Tucson's trash fee has returned to the spotlight in this year's city election.

Voters will decide in November whether to repeal the $14-a-month fee as part of the Tucson Water Users' Bill of Rights, a proposition that would also prohibit the household delivery of treated effluent and block Tucson Water from hooking up new water connections once the utility is delivering 140,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Kromko says it was the trash fee that first got him started on his initiative, because he was disappointed that Democrats didn't repeal the fee once they took control of the City Council two years ago.

Tucsonans first began paying the fee in 2004, after Mayor Bob Walkup joined with then-Democrat Carol West and then-council members Republicans Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar to make the Environmental Services Department a self-supporting "enterprise department."

Because the city no longer had to use general-fund dollars for garbage collection, the council freed up more than $20 million that could be spent fixing streets, hiring cops and firefighters, and covering other expenses. (Trash-fee collections have climbed to roughly $23 million in the current budget, according to City Manager Mike Hein.)

This relatively routine accounting strategy--most major cities in the Western United States charge for garbage collection--was dismissed as a "shell game" by Democrats Nina Trasoff and Karin Uhlich, who used it as one of the key issues in their successful campaigns to oust Ronstadt and Dunbar two years ago.

Since Democrats have taken control of the council, however, they've become less determined to repeal the trash fee, although they've expanded a waiver program. Now, anyone who says they can't afford the fee needs to apply for an exemption just once a year (rather than monthly, as the previous council had required).

Trasoff has abandoned her rhetoric against the "garbage tax," settling on calling it a "fee." Like Ronstadt did before her, Trasoff now points out that it's not unusual for communities to charge for trash collection. She says her suggestion during the campaign to replace revenue raised from the garbage fee with a sin tax on cigarettes and alcohol was based on a "lack of knowledge" about the city's taxing authority.

Trasoff still maintains that the previous council shouldn't have implemented the fee so quickly, but has come to support keeping Environmental Services as an enterprise department. She would support a subsidy from the general fund to keep the trash fee at its current level.

Uhlich, who supported a "modest" fee during her 2005 campaign, still hopes that someday, the city might be able to reduce the fee. She remains uncertain about whether Environmental Services should be an enterprise department.

"I wouldn't say in my mind that it has to be an enterprise fund," Uhlich says. "I'm open to it being either an enterprise or getting some support from other sources of funding."

Democrat Shirley Scott, who is seeking a fourth term in eastside Ward 4, says "the garbage fee is here to stay." Scott, who once said she'd never vote for a budget that included a garbage fee, now says the revenue is vital to maintaining city services. She says Environmental Services should remain an enterprise department, but sidesteps a question about whether it should receive a subsidy from the general fund.

Republican Dan Spahr, who hopes to unseat Scott in November, agrees that Environmental Services should remain an enterprise fund, although he wants to examine the possibility of providing smaller barrels at a lower monthly cost to residents who throw away less trash--a plan that Scott says would be difficult to administer in a city the size of Tucson.

Democrat Rodney Glassman, who wants to replace the retiring West in Ward 2, is taking a similar tack to Trasoff and Uhlich, complaining that Republicans (along with West) were insensitive in how they implemented the fee. But he doesn't see the fee as enough of a hardship for citizens to call for its repeal.

Glassman complains that using the trash fee to free up money in the general fund is a confusing way of doing business.

"A fee for police and fire and parks should be called a fee for police and fire and parks," says Glassman, who concedes that he has "no idea" how such a fee would be implemented.

Glassman's opponent, Republican Lori Oien, says she supports the trash fee.

"We need to be responsible for the trash that we produce," Oien says.

In Ward 1, Democrat Regina Romero, who faces no Republican opposition in her council campaign, also criticizes Republicans for implementing the fee. She doesn't believe Environmental Services needs to be a self-sustaining enterprise fund, saying she would support a subsidy from the general fund in order to keep the fee at $14 a month, even if trash-collection costs rise in future years.

The only candidates who flat-out oppose the trash fee are in the Green Party, which has formally announced its support for the Tucson Water Users' Bill of Rights. At a recent forum, Ward 1 Green candidate Beryl Baker, who represents only token opposition to Romero, announced she thought the monthly fee was "an atrocity."

Green mayoral candidate Dave Croteau complains the trash fee is regressive--despite the waiver program--and that people should be charged for the amount of trash they throw away, not a flat fee.

Croteau confesses to being baffled by the budget maneuver that set up Environmental Services as an enterprise fund.

"It's so convoluted to have a water bill with a trash fee that goes to pay for police," Croteau says.

Press Croteau on details--such as whether Environmental Services should be an enterprise department, or whether it's a waste of money and paper to send two bills to city residents for water and trash collection--and he pleads ignorance.

"I think we need to look at a lot of dynamic changes in the way that we do things," Croteau says. "I don't have the time dedicated to examine the city budget as it needs to be examined. But I intend to bring the community I know and love to help me."

As the leader of the effort to repeal the fee, Kromko says the city simply needs to tighten its belt to replace the $23 million in the budget, although he offers few concrete suggestions on how to do that.

West, an independent who was driven from the Democratic Party partly because she wouldn't follow the party line on the trash fee, says that Uhlich's suggestion that the fee could be lowered is "naïve."

She's even more blunt when it comes to the idea that Environmental Services doesn't need to be an enterprise department.

"That would be crazy," West says.

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