Police Power and Public Finance: How A Proposed Local Government Mandate Will Trash St. Louisans’ Pocketbooks
The city of St. Louis is debating a local legislative proposal that will, for the first time, impose a mandatory monthly fee for its residents’ garbage collection.
At present, the city supports its Refuse Division with an approximately $15 million annual appropriation, of which almost 90 percent comes from General Fund revenues. The controversial earnings tax is the largest component revenue stream of the General Fund, accompanied by property, sales, payroll, franchise, and license taxes, in addition to departmental fines and fees, intergovernmental revenues, and other fund sources.
If approved by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, Board Bill 99 will institute a reported $11 monthly fee per dwelling unit for the provision of “Solid Waste Services.” Current spending on the Refuse Division totals $42.38 annually per resident, while the proposed fee should yield a comparable amount in revenue, considering our estimated number of occupied dwelling units.
Although I am confident that nearly all of my colleagues here would prefer that local government discontinue its direct delivery of service by perhaps privatizing the Refuse Division, I am personally more sympathetic to the notion that a public agency can operate according to market forces through a financing mechanism of user fees, passed through an independent enterprise fund.
This is precisely what Board Bill 99 attempts to do, which should make me and other free-market advocates happier than the status quo. That said, I believe that the proposed legislation presents many problems for those who support intelligent and limited allocations of public resources and deployments of governmental power.
The bill opens by obliquely identifying a fiscal problem:
[…] the City is no longer able to bear the entire cost of providing [solid waste collection and disposal services for residential dwelling units] from its general revenue […]
It then proceeds to claim authority to impose a trash fee under Section 260.215 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. (Incidentally, this is a heavy-handed mechanism to foist the fee upon St. Louisans, because the Missouri Supreme Court held in Craig v. City of Macon, 543 S.W.2d 772 (1976) that “the accumulation of garbage is a serious threat to public health” and, as such, a municipally-legislated “mandatory service charge” to facilitate “solid waste disposal” and enabling legislation are “valid as reasonable exercises of the police power.”)
Board Bill 99 then begins a series of legislative contortions to target those who shall pay the proposed “service charge for solid waste collection and disposal services.” From the bill’s text, it appears that both a “Customer” — or recipient of a city water bill — and an “Owner” — the person on file at the assessor’s office recorded as owning a parcel on which a “Dwelling Unit” sits — share responsibility for payment of the fee.
Collection of the charge will be the responsibility of the city’s collector of revenue, who must consult with the assessor to “determine the number of Dwelling Units for which each Customer receives water service […]” The customer will receive a bill for the monthly charge.
If a customer fails to pay the assessed fee, then the collector, under Section 99.700 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, “may proceed to file a lien upon the Property […] for the amount of delinquent Solid Waste Services Fee payments,” and also “shall have power to sue any Customer […] in a civil action to recover any sums due for Solid Waste Services Fees, plus a reasonable attorney’s fee to be fixed by the court.” (In other words, the bill conflates responsibility for payment of the fee with the source of refuse and the site of its disposal.)
Enforcement of the ordinance falls on the Building Division, which must verify that the solid waste services fees for a dwelling unit are paid prior to issuing a certificate of inspection for the property. A failure to pay the fee or a failure to seek exemption from the fee is an ordinance violation, punishable by a $500 fine for each day that the owner of the property does not have “appropriate and adequate” solid waste service.
The bill offers a fluid mechanism for exemption from the fee. In an intelligent move, the bill seems to envision that certain properties may not actually produce solid waste and, therefore, not be subject to the fine for violation (page 8, line 16). In a questionable and dubious infringement on the market for private waste disposal services, the bill unfortunately affords the refuse commissioner discretion to grant exemptions from the disposal fee for housing units if the units receive “adequate Solid Waste Services from a Private Solid Waste Contractor pursuant to a binding contract […]” (the St. Louis City Revised Code outlines regulations for private solid waste contractors). The city’s director of streets grants both “hauling” and “vehicle” permits to private trash haulers, who otherwise are ineligible to dispose of refuse in the city.
Legislative language is too often confounding at worst and annoying at best, but a close reading of Board Bill 99 elicits both reactions.
Firstly, how many city departments does it take to assess and collect a trash fee?
- At least five, but probably more. (Confounding.)
Secondly, why is the city instituting a mandatory charge for trash service?
- The Board of Aldermen’s penchant for selectively absolving powerful interests of their tax burdens without even pretending to account for the fiscal impacts of the board’s legislation. (Annoying.)
Wait, doesn’t this mean that the proposed “service charge for solid waste collection and disposal services” is nothing more than a subsidy to backfill unfunded grants of public money from the city’s General Fund?
- Yes. (Confounding and annoying.)
Consider this: Board Bill 99 proposes to use the city’s police power to take additional funds from its residents in order to provide continued funding for the city’s Refuse Division, whose present operating funds derive from taxation and grant funding. St. Louis’ decade of legislation that pretended there was no cost associated with special interest tax forgiveness is hitting home hard — and at the worst possible time. We simply do not have the funds to continue throwing money into public systems and agencies that stand unaccountable to the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
Board Bill 99 displays an unwillingness to account transparently for the forces and the decisions that have led us to the point of its economic coercion. Furthermore, the bill fixes service fees according to current levels of Refuse Division spending, not the true costs of service delivery in a free market. In addition, the bill appears to authorize a mechanism through which the city could very well attempt to profit from the sale of recyclable materials that its residents dispose of (page 2, lines 3–5, 18).
I would prefer to continue receiving trash service than to pay for an unneeded performing arts facility. Money is fungible, however, and government mandates are inherently oppressive, so city residents will soon begin paying for Kiel in monthly $11 installments. No wonder so many “developers” choose to reside outside the city limits. They aren’t chumps.
My only question to St. Louis city government is whether it will honor the spirit of Hancock Amendment by allowing a public vote on this fee. Tax forgiveness requires no vote, but the last time I checked, the addition of user fees and new taxes does.