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That blogger was me

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Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Aug 2, 2012; Section:Opinion; Page Number:6A

That blogger was me
County right to dump garbage presentation

On Tuesday, an op-ed by Charlene Lemoine of the Waukesha County Environmental Action League explained how her efforts in life were thwarted by “a local blogger.” I said to myself, “Gee, I wonder who that is.”

Actually, I knew who it was. It was me.

What has Lemoine so upset that she cannot even type my name is that on July 19 she and a member of Waukesha County staff were supposed to make a presentation on “pay as you throw” to the city of Waukesha’s Board of Public Works meeting. That presentation never took place.

Pay as you throw is a plan to replace the current system of paying for garbage collection on your property tax bill with a fee-based system. You may recall last year’s budget debate when Mayor Jeff Scrima attempted to take garbage collection off the property tax and replace it with a $136-per-household fee. The idea resembled the flight of the Hindenburg for two reasons: People like the deductibility of their property taxes applying to every basic service provided by the city, and they saw through it as a hidden tax hike without calling it a tax hike.

When Scrima was cornered on his plan, he said it was a stepping stone to pay as you throw. Nobody bought it.

However, Scrima’s plan and pay as you throw are similar in that they would both allow the city to remove garbage collection from the property tax and create a separate fee. The difference with pay as you throw is that it would penalize homeowners that throw away more trash.

Supporters of pay as you throw will tell you that it encourages more recycling and even composting.

But pay as you throw is not a good deal for everyone. There is still the problem of losing the deductibility on your federal taxes. Unlike the property tax, there is also the problem of higher garbage fees hitting those of less or fixed incomes. There is no indication that the total of garbage fees and taxes would go down for anyone. There is certainly reason to believe that for many people the combination of garbage fees and taxes would go up.

Then there is the matter of how invasive the idea is. Say goodbye to your old garbage cans. You would be required to buy special garbage cans or special garbage bags. Why? Because then they can measure how much garbage you throw away. And quite frankly, I don’t want my garbage measured, any more than the mayor wants people to know just how few garbage cans there are outside his official residence on Tuesdays.

Supporters of any fee-based garbage collection miss a basic point. There is a reason garbage collection is a basic city service. If my neighbor does not rid himself of his garbage, his residence becomes a detriment to mine. If he doesn’t pay the “fee,” the garbage collection can’t stop because it would affect everyone. So the “fee” is mandatory, which means it’s a tax no matter how you describe it and it’s paying for a mandatory public service.

But all of this misses a larger point. WEAL can advocate whatever position they want. What caused me to ask County Executive Dan Vrakas’ office about the presentation was the participation of county staff in a biased presentation advocating a tax policy change for the city of Waukesha. The presentation – still available on my website – also was a presentation on how to sell the pay-as-youthrow program to city residents. It was far from content-neutral, and that was obvious to Vrakas’ office when I brought the presentation to their attention. It’s to their credit that they decided to withdraw county participation in the presentation.

As the WEAL members left the canceled presentation, one of them stopped to ask if I was proud of myself. I’m proud that this column and my website give me a position to do what any resident of Waukesha should feel free to do, which is to ask questions. If those questions lead public officials to act positively, so much the better.

Lemoine may feel that her special calling entitles her to whatever access she wants to county resources without being questioned. I hope this episode put a little dent in her sense of entitlement.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://www.wigderson.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

JAMES WIGDERSON

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