Goshen's mayor surveys cities on trash fees

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Some cities use property taxes to pay for trash pickup. Some cities charge a separate fee. And some cities won't pick up residents' trash at all - residents are forced to contract out for the service.

Kokomo seems to have reached a truce on the issue of trash fees, choosing to fund trash pickup out of the city's general tax revenues.

From time to time - mainly during economic downturns and resulting financial crises, the topic arises. Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight's opponent in the 2009 election, Scott Kern, suggested trash fees as a way of reducing reliance on the property tax.

The issue came up in 2004, when then-Mayor Matt McKillip sought a trash fee in response to an unexpected drop in tax revenues.

And financial crises appear to be the main reason cities turn to trash fees.

That's the conclusion of a study by Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, who surveyed more than 100 Indiana cities to see how they handled paying for trash pickup.

Of 70 responses, Kauffman received, it turned out that 46 cities have a trash fee, and 24 have no fee, the Kokomo Tribune reported.

Of the 24 without a fee, five don't offer trash service. Residents in those cities contract privately or make other arrangements.

Kauffman said nine cities are currently considering a trash fee, including several cities where the subject has previously been broached. Noblesville city officials, in particular, have tried twice to put in a trash fee, only to be rebuffed by the city council. Undaunted, they're still trying.

In Kokomo, Goodnight said he doesn't anticipate a trash fee anytime soon.

First, he insists the city's in good fiscal condition, with cash balances rising each of the five years he's been in office, and zero taxpayer-supported debt.

Second, he said he considers fees a last resort option.

"My take is that we have an obligation to the public to be as efficient as possible, and if the need for trash fees arises, it would only be because we've exhausted every other option," he said.

That's apparently what happened in Peru, where the city council passed a $12 monthly trash fee after an hour of debate Sept. 4. Peru Mayor Jim Walker said the fee was needed to make up for the loss of revenue to state property tax caps.

Walker also argued against privatizing the service, as has been done in places like Fishers, where residents pay private contractors to pick up their trash.

In some cities where private services are used, the city subsidizes the amount residents are charged for the service.

"We've looked at many, many options, and this is the best one we have," Walker told the Peru council. "You're going to pay more rather than less (by privatizing)."

Cities get into other issues with private trash pickup, Walker noted, including a lack of flexibility on picking up trash in places other than curbside.

The Kokomo Street Department also performs numerous services other than trash pickup, including snow removal, street repairs, and even landscape work and trails installation.

And there's little doubt that the offer of "free" trash pickup was an attractive one to many of the 11,000 or so people annexed into Kokomo in the past year.

The relief from not having to pay for trash pickup was, by itself, enough to offset the impact of paying property taxes for some of the newly annexed residents, particularly those living in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods like Indian Heights.

Then there are the cities that can't seem to make up their collective minds about trash fees.

Columbus established fees of $10 to $14 in 2010, and then turned around and slashed the fees in 2011, and finally did away with the fees altogether this year, according to Kauffman's survey, which was distributed to mayors around the state.

Bloomington, usually considered at the vanguard of the green movement in Indiana, sells trash bag stickers for $2 apiece. The city won't pick up a trash bag without the sticker, and recycling is free.

The problem is that the sticker fees don't come close to covering the cost of trash pickup, so the council there is considering trash fees.

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