There’s a hole in Troy’s budget, dear mayor

There’s a hole in Troy’s budget, dear mayor

Thanks to the incompetence of the outgoing Republican-majority city council, a regressive fee proposal by the mayor, and a budget calendar that leaves an incoming council to clean up the mess, the City of Troy now stares down the barrel of a state takeover.

To explain this, it’s helpful to turn back the clock to when Republican City Council President Carmella Mantello led the effort against Democratic Mayor Patrick Madden’s proposed 28.2 percent property tax increase last year. Madden said this increase was needed to avoid layoffs and cuts, reductions, and interruptions to city services—like garbage removal. What ultimately passed was a 14.5 percent increase, a difficult compromise forced by the state’s property tax cap, which requires supermajority approval for any increase over two percent. After years of budgetary mismanagement, such high corrections are occasionally necessary—lest the city face shortfalls. Or, they’re necessary in cities filled with buildings that are off the tax rolls, like those owned by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or the state government, buildings often peopled with commuters who then take their income back to the suburbs, dodging the property taxes that pay for the roads they commute on.

So this year’s budget battle was set up: the Mayor put forth a tax increase of 1.17 percent, well below the cap, but kept it that low by proposing a new garbage fee even as his budget increased by 5.5 percent. It is almost certain that this $190-per-residential-unit fee had some support from the council before it was made public, but as soon as word got out it was rightly criticized from both the right and the left. Mantello labelled it a hidden tax, and environmentalists rightly complained that this flat fee would do nothing to reduce the quantity of trash thrown out, nor the rising costs associated with it.

Mantello is wrong: it is not a hidden tax, because fees are not taxes. Cities across the country have been relying more and more on fees for services—or from traffic tickets—to fill coffers, rather than taxes. It’s no coincidence that, parallel to this, the city has been seeking out a corporation to manage its parking, to raise funds through new meters and enforcement.

The city council proceeded to vote the garbage fee down, then rejected the mayor’s budget. But in a shockingly irresponsible move, the council unanimously approved that same budget’s appropriations and modest tax increase—leaving a $2.9 million hole. (This may be a good time to remind readers that the Mantello-led defeat of the Leonard Hospital redevelopment resulted in the city taking on $2.5 million in debt to tear down and remediate the site.) The Council could have amended the mayor’s budget, especially as they know the consequences of a budget shortfall: the city is still paying back debt that the state gave it in the ‘90s. The council could have simply turned the proposed fee, the so-called hidden tax, into a tax. Instead, Mantello has blamed Madden, who for his part continues to pursue his garbage fee. By failing to present any alternatives—opting to, once again, grandstand rather than govern—Mantello has ensured that either Troy loses control of its own finances or that the garbage fee she claims to oppose moves forward.

But the garbage fee is a bad idea, not because pricing trash is a bad idea, but because it places all of the overhead for all the city’s trash collection onto homeowners and renters. Only about a third of the proposed fee is actually for the cost of tipping waste into dumps; the rest is what makes the system work: trucks, fuel, salaries, and even the collection of trash from public bins throughout the city. Some will say landlords with large apartment buildings, who use dumpsters under private contract, shouldn’t have to pay for a service they don’t use. But trash pickup isn’t just a service to buy, it is an essential function of city government—like street cleaning and snow plowing—the guarantee that our streets are not filled with refuse. It should be paid for by the city’s entire tax base, not just by people who like having their trash picked up. One only needs to look across the river to see what a regressive exemption can look like, rental units are charged a trash fee while single family homes are off the hook in Albany. And citizens should be weary of exemptions for anyone using private contractors as a gateway to privatization. Besides, big  landlords can afford to contribute, and the ones who can’t, who specialize in affordable housing, get tax breaks for that very reason.

Pushing that overhead onto homeowners is shameful, but pricing trash? Pricing trash is smart. Charging for what is actually tossed encourages people to toss less, and enacts a public policy that meaningfully reckons with the problem rather than hoping in vain that consumer choices can solve it. But to effectively and fairly divert waste from increasingly expensive landfills, that price must be paired with expanded recycling, municipal composting, and an educational outreach program. And there’s still more to do, like banning styrofoam, which takes up so much space in bins and will be around until the Earth is swallowed by the Sun. In order to provide an immediate, practical incentive to toss less, cities like Portland, Oregon have cut back trash pickup to once every two weeks, complementing weekly composting and recycling collection. There, if you insist on throwing your food scraps into the trash, you’ll have a very full and very putrid bin before it’s gone. The city too must lead by example and install public recycling bins throughout the city. Troy could one day roll out “smart” solar compactors that inform city staff when they need to be emptied and that serve as hubs for public wifi—and what would suit Troy’s techie reputation more than that?

If Madden had engaged citizen and environmental groups in drafting his garbage proposal, perhaps he’d have gotten all this into the draft policy, energizing community support for 21st century waste disposal. Instead, he continues to push for his fee, hoping the newly elected Democratic majority will pass it. This fee is worse than a “hidden tax,” and the incoming city council should reject it and any further transfers of wealth from working class families to the large developers and institutions that try to dominate local politics. If Madden insists there’s no way to avoid state takeover than to pass his garbage, the council should pass it—with a sunset clause after one year and a mandate to develop a solid waste disposal plan for 2019.

With state takeover looming nearer, and with a fear of the incoming Democratic majority, it looks like outgoing Republican councillors Dean Bodnar and John Donahue may vote to do just that next week—if they can overcome Mantello’s efforts to sabotage bipartisan compromise. But respect for the public and responsibility to citizens should drive policy, not fear of the other side. May the outgoing council resolve this garbage and avert disaster. And may the incoming council lead Troy to reduce waste—especially the energy wasted year after year on manufactured crises.

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