IF YOU MISSED the briefing by the mayor's Cabinet, you may be laboring under the misconception that he wants to tax trash pickups and soft drinks.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before the briefing Tuesday, I just focused on the fact that the city expects us taxpayers to kick in an extra $147 million a year. Applying the duck rule, I figured, if it quacks like a tax . . .

But no. These revenue enhancements are not taxes at all. They are public-service initiatives.

What we saw as a trash-pickup fee is, in fact, the "Keep Philadelphia Clean" initiative. And that whopping 2-cents-an-ounce levy on sugar-sweetened soft drinks is actually a "Healthy Philadelphia" initiative.

I am not making this up. Apparently, these names are from the Municipal Euphemism Bureau, a city agency that comes up with new names for old pains.

I know what you're thinking. If you add $5.77 a week to my real- estate-tax bill for trash pickup, why is that not a tax?

Because, the mayor explained, "We wanted to add value and not just charge more for what we do now."

For your $5.77 a week, the city will now pick up used computers. Apparently, we're up to our knees in discarded keyboards and monitors.

Not only that, but the city also wants you to know that there's money in your trash.

The city is willing to share with you the $5.04 per ton that it gets paid for recycled trash. If you recycle, the city will pay you in coupons redeemable in supermarkets, clothing stores and Lexus dealerships.

But the ultimate goal, Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler explained, is "waste minimization."

Dr. Donald Schwartz, who doubles as health commissioner and deputy mayor, had a similar goal.

Call it waist minimization.

Armed with charts and graphs, Schwartz explained how milk prices have risen relative to the consumer price index while carbonated beverages have not.

At the same time, he said, we have seen a marked increase in childhood obesity and worse.

Our teens are experiencing increases in diabetes and heart disease. They may be the first generation of Americans "whose life expectancy will be less than their parents' life expectancy, Schwartz said."

He said that his goal is "to increase milk consumption and decrease the proportion of sugar-sweetened beverages they consume."

One out of two ain't bad. Kids who drink a liter a day of liquid sugar aren't about to develop a craving for milk.

But they will certainly drink fewer sodas. At an additional $1.36 per two-liter bottle, it may be cheaper to get a shot and a beer.

The payoff, Schwartz said, is that the city will invest in obesity prevention, setting aside $20 million of the $77 million from the sugary-drink fee for anti-obesity programs.

"Through this tax and education, we can do good while doing well," Schwartz said.

That's true. But the more we do good, the less we do well. Tax revenues and sugar intake would be reduced at about the same rate.

Not so for the Philadelphia Clean initiative. The budget crunch may pass, but taxes are everlasting. And this one will be collected by a tax bureaucracy that is certifiably dysfunctional.

"We're always going to pick up trash," the mayor explained. "There is nothing free."

Which raises an important question. If nothing is free, why not call it what it is - a real-estate-tax hike? Are we supposed to believe that this money is in some lockbox to be used only for trash collection?

Why should we pay for any essential service with a flat tax that has a greater impact on low-income families than on other families?

But I keep forgetting. These are not taxes.

Some of you still see them as taxes. You can't help noticing that the city's concerns about obesity dovetail nicely with its concern for its bottom line.

I can't help you with that. I just wish you had been there for the briefing by the mayor's Cabinet.

Send e-mail to or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns:


An incorrect dollar amount for weekly trash pickup was listed in yesterday’s Elmer Smith column.