Tom Clyde: Summit County’s trash tax shakedown
I got my bill for garbage pick up service a while ago. It was followed by a letter enclosed with the property tax notice that tried to explain it. It’s the same deal as last year. Summit County imposed a charge of $36 a year for trash pick up, or as they put it, “solid waste services.” Calling it “solid waste services” makes it sound more impressive than “garbage” and the elegance of the name makes $36 seem like a bargain. Who wouldn’t want to pay extra for solid waste services?
Summit County used to cover all of the garbage costs through the general fund — property tax and sales tax. As collection and disposal costs have gone up, they made the decision to impose the $36 fee. They could have raised property taxes a little bit instead, but chose to get the additional money through a fee that gets billed by the contractor so the County’s fingerprints are hard to see.
A property tax increase would have landed hardest on commercial properties, who pay for their trash pick up through dumpster service. That lets the homeowners who are producing the garbage, and where the collection process is most expensive, off the hook. But $36 seems so ridiculously modest that I wonder if it is even worth the cost of processing the payment. They — meaning Republic Services — have to print and send out the bills, then deal with the collection process. There’s a lot of bookkeeping involved here. The County, while hiding behind their contractor so we don’t get mad at the elected officials for the backdoor tax, then has to send out the coaxing letter. I have no idea what percentage of the $36 actually gets consumed by overhead, and what really makes it into the cost of operating the dump, but it’s significant. And then there is the irony of how much additional paper lands in the system to bill and collect the $36.
I guess it could be worse. Pleasant Grove and several other cities have imposed user fees on their streets. In Pleasant Grove, the fee is $8.45 per month, charged to property owners for the privilege of using their public streets. The fee would raise about $100 a year from every property owner, and the money, less the cost of billing and collection, would go to road maintenance work. There is litigation over whether the fee is legal or not. But it seems like something a tax increase would have covered with a lot less controversy. The fee isn’t correlated in any way to the amount of driving an individual property owner does. So a family with 5 cars and several kids chasing to activities would pay the same as the elderly shut-in who hasn’t driven in years.
Park City has sort gotten into the fee business with its storm drainage utility fee. They’ve tied it to the hard-surface area on each property, so it more or less matches up with the impact on the overall drainage system. Storm drainage is a major source of water pollution, and needs to be dealt with. I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it.
The solid waste service fee always generates a lot of confusion in my neighborhood. Most of the houses are seasonal cabins. The owners pack their garbage home with them and dispose of it at their primary residence. They don’t have a Summit County bin, aren’t here on garbage day to put one out if they had one, and the neighborhood doesn’t have dumpster service. So they wonder what they are getting for their $36 a year.
The County’s letter about the fee was quite emphatic that everybody should pay for the service whether they use or not. It’s like people without children paying school taxes (but we don’t have to pay student activity fees). The punishment for non-payment is that the County will quit picking up the garbage they aren’t picking up already. So there. There isn’t garbage piling up in the yards, so it’s going somewhere.
Summit County should be happy for every bag that gets dragged back to Salt Lake for disposal there. Our recycling program doesn’t divert much from the landfill, but by refusing to provide the service to people who aren’t here on garbage day to put their can out, they divert 100 percent of their trash from the Summit County landfill. Now that’s success. Summit County should pay my neighbors $36 a year to not use the County’s service, rather trying to shake them down for the cash, or encouraging them to start putting their trash out here.
Meanwhile, this week presented an alternative form of trash disposal. There was a pile of fresh bear poop in the front yard this morning. Having a bear take care of the trash is cheap, effective, and just a little bit scary.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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