Tonight’s the big showdown between Mayor Domenic Sarno and City Council President Jose Tosado over their competing visions for the future of the city’s controversial trash fee. Sarno wants to extend the fee for two more years; Tosado is calling for its elimination. (The two men’s positions, interestingly, are reversals of their earlier stands: Sarno, as a mayoral candidate in 2007, ran against the fee; Tosado, as a member of Finance Control Board at the time, voted to institute it.)
Adding interest to the debate is the fact that it’s widely assumed that Sarno and Tosado will square off in the 2011 mayor’s race—a race that carries particular import, as the winner will be the first to enjoy the job protection of the new, four-year mayoral term approved by voters in 2009.
This evening’s City Council agenda includes both the mayor’s and Tosado’s proposals. And while I’ve been thinking of the face-off as a chance to measure which of the presumed mayoral candidates has the support of the councilors, veteran Councilor Tim Rooke suggests that tonight’s votes will actually be more revealing about the councilors themselves. “I don’t think it’s so much a referendum on who they’re going to be supporting [next year],” Rooke told me. Rather, he said, it will answer the question of “who wants to be politically correct, and who wants to be politically courageous.”
Like many city residents, Rooke said, he was initially frustrated by the creation of the fee, which, in its first year, charged residents $90 a year for curbside trash pick-up, a service that previously had been covered under their taxes. But, Rooke added, like a lot of residents, he’s come to accept the fee. And he’s wary of eliminating the fee, and the crucial revenue it brings, without identifying where the city will make up for the money it loses, either by cutting spending elsewhere, or finding new sources of revenue. (Rooke, who chairs the Council’s Finance Committee, has a few ideas on the latter issue, including the city’s making a more aggressive investment in license-plate recognition technology that make it easier to identify drivers who owe excise taxes.)
In the weeks leading up to the trash show-down, Tosado has said that it’s up to the City Hall financial team to identify where the lost revenue would be made up. “Let them find the money,” Tosado recently told the Advocate, pointing to the high paychecks the finance staff receives. The important thing, Tosado said, is that the city is now in strong enough fiscal shape to cut residents this break. But Rooke said he’d like to see Tosado, or any councilor who supports eliminating the fee, offer ideas before tonight’s vote.
And let’s not forget, Rooke added, that the fee—which has been reduced a couple of times since it was implemented, to a current $75 a year—still doesn’t cover the full cost of trash removal. And that difference is still covered by the taxpayers. “Every time we reduce the fee to the residents it increases the cost of the city,” he noted. “It’s disingenuous to say they’re getting a reduction, because they’re paying it for it one way or another.”