Maybe it’s ridiculous to raise a stink about $13.68, but if enough of you agree with the problem, it’s not too late to have an impact on this trash talk.
In case you haven’t read the story in our paper, or caught on to the ridiculous puns, Houston’s mayor and city council have proposed assessing a fee on our garbage cans. They’re literally scraping the bottom of the barrel for revenue.
The details are straightforward: Once this “container fee” passes, the city will begin assessing every household a monthly fee of $1.14 for your trash and recycling bins. All told, this will cost you $13.68 each year, which means you’ll have to forego about two meals at a fast-food joint down the street.
For a large majority of the people in our community, this fee is not exorbitant. Most of us will not be forced to take out home equity loans in order to continue disposing of household trash. But for some reason, this has rubbed me entirely the wrong way.
So let’s start with some questions, first of which is: Did the city hold public hearings on assessing these new fees? As naïve as I am to all things City Code, I’m almost positive that in order to assess a new fee, the public must be allowed to offer feedback and make outlandish threats to vote the scoundrels out of office.
In this case, the container fee never went to committee and the public didn’t get to social-distance gather at City Hall wearing masks. Maybe that’s because the city doesn’t want large swaths of people gathering, which is understandable. So why not put this off until there’s a better time?
And that leads to my second question: Why in the world is the city doing this now? With national unemployment numbers soaring past 30 million, with oil prices cratering below zero, and hundreds of thousands of Houstonians worried about their next paychecks, what political savant came up with the idea of throwing out a new fee at a time like this?
When our editor, Adam Zuvanich, told me about this story, I didn’t pay much attention the first time around. Then, as we talked more and more about it, a few of those “journalism watchdog” bells started ringing in my head. And that led me to more questions.
If the city is going to require me to pay $1.14 each month to now lease their garbage cans, is it permissible for me to opt out of the program, buy my own garbage can, and drag that beauty down to the street once or twice a week?
As you might expect, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s spokesperson Mary Benton said, “No.” Actually, she said more than that.
“Residents do not have the option to purchase their own bins for City collection, as the city will collect from ‘automated service containers,’ which the ordinance defines as, ‘Automated service container means a city-issued rolling, molded plastic container, equipped with a lid, capable of holding not more than 90 gallons…”
According to the mayor’s office, that about seals the deal. Even though you or I could visit any number of businesses that sell trash bins exactly like the ones floating down the bayou in a hurricane, and we could buy them today, we are not allowed to do so. We certainly aren’t allowed to opt out of the fee being imposed by the city.
Are you starting to get my concern here? It’s certainly not about the $1.14 each month. It’s not even that the city needs to increase revenue (they say this fee will bring in about $5.3 million in revenue each year). Again, I don’t think the majority of residents are sweating a buck each month on their water bill.
I actually have two concerns. The first is that the city apparently has waived its requirement to hold public hearings when assessing fees to its taxpayers. Again, there’s probably a loophole somewhere in the City Code that allows for this sort of amendment, but it’s certainly not in the spirit of the way our government should legislate.
The second, larger concern is that if the city can assess this fee without due process, what’s to stop them from assessing another? Can they vote next year to increase the fee to $5 each month? What if they would have made the fee $10? If we were told we were being assessed an annual $120 fee for our trash bins, would we have raised all sorts of mask-wearing fury?
I bet we would have, I bet the city would have held hearings, and I bet enough city council members would have feared for re-election that they would vote against this measure.
You see, I think the city felt we’d all react the way I did when I first heard the news (which is probably the reason most major news organizations haven’t given this story the time of day). The city bet on us hearing $1.14 a month, not paying any attention, and moving along our socially distant ways.
Someone gave me a great analogy: We all get our water from the city of Houston, and we pay for that water (by the way, we pay for trash through our taxes). What if, next month, the city told us we could only use their water if we purchased their hoses. No more buying those fancy, crinkly hoses that never knot. Nope, you have to buy your hoses from the city. On top of that, we’re going to need you to buy all your cups and dinner glasses from the city, too.
In the ordinance cited by Turner’s office, we’re required to use “city-issued” containers. The ordinance doesn’t say “city-leased” or “city-sold.” It says “issued.”
It’s not too late to raise a fuss. The city delayed the vote this week, and we shouldn’t let them pull one over on us. I fear our bureaucrats think we don’t care about a dollar, but this isn’t about the amount; it’s about the process and the precedent. Especially when we’re fighting a virus and anxious about our next paychecks.
Let the city know what you think.