It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.


For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

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5 Responses to It’s past time for a garbage fee

  1. Bill Shirley says:

    I’d love to see the fee graded: i.e. $5 / month / 1,000 sq ft of appraised size of your house. Give the lower income people a break.

  2. Melanie S says:

    I wrote about how some cities use garbage fees to incentivize recycling via volume-based pricing in the Off the Kuff post here: “Pay As You Throw” or “Save Money And Reduce Trash (SMaRT)” programs have a long history of successfully increasing recycling rates without making recycling mandatory.

    On the other hand, some think it’s unfair to make people start paying for public services now that have been inequitably distributed for so long. Although Mayor Parker has promised to expand recycling to every home, around 30% of Houston single-family homes still don’t have recycling.

    Houston also has no Zero Waste Plan in place to assure that this funding will be spent on real recycling, education programs and composting programs instead of boondoggles like One Bin for All. That proposal carries significant risks ranging from enormous long-term financial costs to environmental racism, and a long track record of failed attempts of “one bin” plants and trash gasifiers. The City really needs to abandon the One Bin for All proposal before we can safely consider the pros and cons of a garbage fee.

  3. Ross says:

    How will billing work? How many new employees will be required to run the new systems? Who will do collections? What happens if someone doesn’t pay the bill? I like the present system, it is efficient, it works, and I don’t have to pay yet another bill. Raise taxes by $50 per house, or find efficiencies elsewhere in the City budget (maybe quit giving deals to developers of luxury apartments ).

  4. Abraham Guevara says:

    I agree with this fee if only we could get a strong commitment to the monitoring of illegal dumping.

  5. Jules says:

    Ross, yes on quitting giving deals to developers of luxury apartments! Before payments on that one even begin, we are faced with $14.5M in 2015 for payments on these developer deals.

    One problem with the garbage fee is that it disproportionately affects the poor. $3.76 a month is nothing to some people, the loss of one cup of coffee to some and the difference between making it and not making it to others.

    How much of that $3.76 will be spent on billing and how much will be spent on making sure that the truck drivers don’t pick up certain trash cans? How will the truck drivers be able to tell which can is mine and which is my deadbeat neighbor’s when they are side by side? And sometimes my can and my neighbor’s get switched when they are brought up – so I could have my good trash in a deadbeat can (note: my neighbor is not actually a deadbeat).

    And how will the garbage fee offset holes in the budget if the garbage fee is used for new things? It seems like the garbage fee will increase illegal dumping – people have to get rid of their garbage somehow – if the City isn’t picking it up, dumping might become an option.

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