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Proposed city trash fee raises concerns

In Los Angeles, trash pickup costs $436 a year. In Lower Merion, the annual price starts at $254 for a single container. And in many cities, including Philadelphia, it's free, or, more accurately, included in what residents pay in taxes.

In Los Angeles, trash pickup costs $436 a year.

In Lower Merion, the annual price starts at $254 for a single container.

And in many cities, including Philadelphia, it's free, or, more accurately, included in what residents pay in taxes.

That could change July 1 if Mayor Nutter can persuade City Council to impose a $300 yearly garbage fee to help close a $150 million budget gap and allow the city to clean up more vacant lots and resume collection of leaves and large objects, two services that were dropped in previous budget cuts.

But will the idea fly in "Filthadelphia," where some residents can't even be bothered to toss their trash in a bag, let alone ponder paying for pickup?

The answer will become clearer as Council holds hearings on the proposed fee, which would be included in property-tax bills. Several members said they would wait for those hearings before deciding on the fee, but many expressed sympathy for the mayor's limited choices.

"If it's not done, what gets cut?" Councilman James Kenney asked. "People have to be part of this process. If you're against that idea, then you should have another idea that replaces it."

Some leaders worry that the tax would hit poor people too hard.

"So a family that lives in a $15,000 house in North Philadelphia will pay $300 and a family that lives in a $5 million house in Chestnut Hill will pay $300. How's that fair?" asked former Mayor John F. Street, who attended Nutter's budget address to Council yesterday.

Street acknowledged that the budget crisis left Nutter with few options but suggested that a levy based on property values might work better. Nutter, however, ruled that out because of widespread problems with getting accurate property valuations in the city. He also decided against raising the wage, business, sales, or real estate transfer taxes because they are already high and because of the recession.

Nutter, in an interview, said he "fully recognized" concerns that low-income property owners would be hurt worse by the trash fee than those in wealthier sections of town. He said the administration had tried to soften the blow by proposing a $100 discount for qualifying low-income property owners, and he suggested he was open to adjusting the program in ways that could lessen the burden on the poor.

"This is just the start of a process. We had to start somewhere. We've demonstrated a flexibility about these kinds of things," Nutter said of his willingness to negotiate with Council on budget issues.

Many low-income residents live in rental properties, which could mitigate the effect on them, administration officials said. The Philadelphia Housing Authority already pays the city to pick up trash at its properties, so the fee would not affect its tenants.

Nutter also hopes many residents would recoup some of the money through RecycleBank, a program that rewards recycling with coupons for local businesses. He said residents should be able to earn at least $100 and up to $400 through the program.

He has tried to position the fee not as a tax but as a way to clean up the city. He is calling it a Keep Philly Clean fee and said that in raising about $108 million yearly the fee would help the city pay to clean up more vacant lots, eliminate graffiti, and resume collecting leaves from streets.

Philadelphia could not easily privatize trash collection because the City Charter requires Council approval for that, and Council would not likely take those jobs away from city employees.

The Nutter administration also is in the middle of contract negotiations with sanitation workers and other union employees.

"Right now, we're not far enough along in our negotiations with them or far enough along in evaluating our options to warrant making such a request of City Council," Nutter spokesman Douglas Oliver said.

Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler, who oversees the Streets Department, said the alternative to the fee would be to cut back trash collection to every other week, and residents have made it clear they don't think that's acceptable.

About 1,000 U.S. cities charge an extra fee for trash collection. Many that don't will start to soon, Cutler predicted.

The city considered a "pay-as-you-throw" program, charging residents based on how much they throw in the garbage, but decided that at least for now, that would be too complicated.

In theory, "pay-as-you-throw" encourages residents to recycle more and put less in the trash.

City officials worried that such a program would encourage residents to dump their trash in parks and vacant lots, already a big problem. "Pay-as-you-throw" also involves counting the number of bags residents put out or requires residents to pay by buying special bags.

"We just made a very conscious choice to keep it simple," Cutler said, adding that the city would continue to review "pay-as-you-throw" options.

Katie Edwards, a project coordinator for the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia, said she wished the city could find a method that would encourage people to put less in the trash. But she thinks Philadelphians' attitudes about trash would have to change to make "pay-as-you-throw" work because so many people already put their trash in the wrong places.

"A lot of it is going to be education," she said. "You have to get into the schools and teach it."