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Garbage Equity? 

City officials examine the possibility of a variable 'pay as you throw' trash fee

Fourteen years ago, the Tucson City Council unanimously supported the goal of a "pay as you throw" garbage fee. After that, amid political apathy and potential public scorn, the concept languished.

In June, however, when the present council--by a 4-3 vote--enacted the controversial $14 monthly environmental services fee, Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar insisted on moving a "pay as you throw" proposal forward. Within a year, she wanted to see an actual plan for accomplishing the idea.

Before her election three years ago, Dunbar was opposed to the idea of any garbage fee. But then she did some research, and discovered that almost every community in the United States has one.

Criticizing outgoing City Manager James Keene for pushing the adopted flat fee as simply a way to balance this year's municipal budget, the Ward 3 Republican says she supports "pay as you throw" because of its equity. Dunbar questions why an 85-year-old individual should pay the same amount for garbage service as a big family, and says opting for a "pay as you throw" approach instead of a flat fee is "probably the right thing to do."

For her part, eastside Councilwoman Shirley Scott thinks the idea is worth entertaining, while also pointing out some of its potential economic drawbacks.

"It will be hard for large families," the Democrat says. "Those who have the least dollars to spend could also end up adversely affected." But Scott says she understands there are equity issues involved, and adds, "So we should look for a fair balance."

The concept behind "pay as you throw" is simple: In contrast to Tucson's current "one size fits all" garbage service, it uses the economic incentive of different garbage-can sizes with different monthly costs to reduce garbage--and the expense of putting it in landfills--while at the same time increasing recycling.

"It provides a variable rate structure (of charges) that reflects generation," explains Sally Uthe, chair of the city's Environmental Services Advisory Committee. "Plus, people become more aware of the materials they buy in order to reduce their garbage."

Eliseo Garza, director of the city's Environmental Services Department, says that while Tucson and its citizens have made progress in its recycling rate, there's still a long way to go.

"Our blue barrel program made a significant increase in our waste stream-diversion rate," says Garza, explaining that Tucson went from a 9 to 23 percent reduction in average household garbage. He confirms that this figure is nowhere near the 10-year, 50-percent reduction goal set by the council back in 1990.

To move closer to that ambitious objective while complying with the council's recent directive, Garza's agency surveyed 12 Western communities about their "pay as you throw" programs. It also held a forum on the issue in October. The results might help Tucson avoid some of the mistakes that other cities have made; Oklahoma City, for example, went from a flat fee to a "pay as you throw" approach, and then back again.

Another problem to look out for, according to Uthe, is a potential increase in illegal dumping after the variable system is instituted. Educating the public about the "pay as you throw" program, she says, is critical to its success.

"We'll need to do a pilot project to gather information and allow the community to understand the effects of the program," says Garza, adding that the test phase could begin as early as next July. He also expects 60 percent of Tucson households to request a 60-gallon garbage can; 30 percent to request a 30-gallon container; and only 10 percent to keep the current 90-gallon cans, meaning the city will be buying lots of new plastic containers.

Tucson also faces the long-standing problem of having to provide individual garbage cans of any size to 42,000 of its customers who still share large, four-household dumpsters. Garza estimates the cost of doing that alone will be $3.2 million.

Another garbage fee-related issue facing the council is the expense of the emergency assistance program they instituted to pay the current flat fee for low-income families. Even though it requires a time-consuming monthly process to obtain help, more than 1,800 households have inquired about assistance, and $167,000 has been paid in the program's first few months. Since that is almost three-fourths of the funds set aside for the entire fiscal year, Garza says he will be going back to the council shortly to request more money.

If the "pay as you throw" system does proceed to implementation, the council will also have to decide about charges for the various can sizes. The communities surveyed by Tucson had fees across the board, some having narrow ranges--such as Austin, Texas which goes from $11.75 to $17.25--while others--such as Seattle, with fees of $16 to $48--charge three times as much for a large can as a small one.

"The differential must be significant enough as an incentive to get people to think (about the size of their garbage container)," says Garza.

For her part, Dunbar bemoans the city's current flat monthly charge, even though it was her vote that broke the tie to put it in place. "We must get away from the $14 fee," she says. But, she admits, "everyone will use it as a comparison" for future garbage charges.

As the groundwork for implementing a "pay as you throw" system in Tucson is finally being laid, Dunbar has only harsh words for Garza, who has served under several city managers.

"The (Environmental Services) department has been run horribly over the last few years," she says, while emphasizing that recent Tucson Water oversight of the agency has helped. "We don't have the management at the top to run the program," she adds.

Despite that, Dunbar believes "pay as you throw" is in Tucson's immediate future. "It is absolutely more equitable than a flat fee," she says.

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