Mayor Nutter has canned a controversial but lucrative plan to charge Philadelphians for garbage service, saying there was too little time to enact the complex program before he presents his budget next week.
By ditching the trash fee - which had evolved in recent weeks from a proposed $5 weekly charge to a per-bag fee - Nutter avoids alienating supporters who consider garbage removal a basic city service, and he escapes a tough fight with City Council, where many members had opposed the fee.
But the decision will make it that much harder for him to close the city's five-year, $1 billion budget gap. A garbage fee, Nutter said, could have covered as much as $400 million of that deficit.
"We are going to have to replace those dollars, either by making additional cuts or raising other revenue sources, and that's going to be tremendously difficult," Nutter said.
In recent days, Nutter has warned that the city likely will have to increase taxes to close the budget gap, particularly as he already cut spending sharply in the fall. With the garbage fee off the table, tax increases now seem almost inevitable.
In addition to raising revenue, a garbage fee likely would have increased the city recycling rate, which would have been good both for the environment and the city's substantial landfill bills. Other cities that charge a per-bag trash fee have reported sharp increases in recycling.
But many Philadelphians strongly objected to the fee. Some complained of the cost, which could have topped $200 a year for many families. Others thought a per-bag charge would have led to increased littering and illegal dumping as residents sought to evade the fee.
"We received all kinds of feedback. Some of it was positive; some was not so positive," said Nutter, who has engaged in an extensive public outreach campaign as he drafts this year's budget.
At-large Councilman James F. Kenney, a Nutter ally who opposed the trash fee, said the open nature of this year's budget process might have doomed the proposal from the start.
"You need a chance internally to work through things sometimes before it becomes public. If it goes public and you don't have all the answers yet, all of a sudden you're fielding complaints and phone calls from constituents and you don't have anything to tell them," Kenney said.
He predicted Nutter would have had a difficult sell had the mayor tried to push the trash fee through Council.
Nutter did not rule out the possibility of some kind of trash fee in the future.
"At some point in time, after further research and development and planning, we may want to do something," Nutter said. "It's certainly a very interesting idea, and it goes right to the heart of something very important, which is how to promote recycling and how do we reduce our waste stream."
He said he would not include revenue from a future garbage-fee program in his five-year spending plan. That could just be prudent budgeting or it could suggest that the trash fee has been killed for good.