Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s plan to begin charging Oahu property owners $10 a month for trash pickup cleared its first hurdle Wednesday but appears to have a long way to go before it becomes law.
Honolulu City Council members voted 7-2 to give Bill 9 first reading approval and send it to the Budget Committee for further review. Bills require three approvals of the full Council before they go to the mayor’s office.
Council members Joey Manahan and Ernie Martin voted against the bill while four others — Ikaika Anderson, Stanley Chang, Ron Menor and Kymberly Pine — supported it, with reservations.
Manahan said some of his constituents pay the highest property taxes on the island without getting benefits such as curbside recycling. The trash fee proposal should be reviewed in the context of the overall city budget picture, he said.
City taxpayers already pay for curbside pickup service through property taxes, Martin said. "The administration needs to make a very compelling case to allow this fee to move forward," he said. Like Manahan, Martin pointed out that many in his district do not benefit from curbside recycling.
Pine said the new fee would be especially hard to accept for disadvantaged families in her district who are already burdened by high sewer fee charges. While the Caldwell administration has argued that Maui and Kauai — the two other Hawaii counties who offer curbside trash pickup — already charge a fee, Pine said wants an in-depth look at why they charge and Honolulu does not.
Councilman Breene Harimoto said that while he’s reluctant to support the fee, he pointed out that the Council has rejected other revenue-making measures including an increase in the fuel tax. "At some point, this Council will have to face the music and see how will we balance the budget."
Making a rare appearance in Council chambers, Caldwell said the bill would allow a "minimal fee" that would raise as much as $21 million for a service that costs more than $100 million annually.
Facing a budget shortfall caused in large part by pay increases included in collective bargaining contracts for government employees, Caldwell said he prefers assessing fees to raising property taxes.
After Wednesday’s vote, Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser his operating budget for next year, due March 1, will not propose a hike in property tax rates for those in the single-family residential classification.
Besides charging the estimated 160,000 traditional single-family households who get their bins of trash, yard waste or recyclable items picked up twice a week a $10 monthly fee, the bill would charge condominium and townhouse complexes, businesses and nonprofits that have dumpsters picked up $314 monthly per 3-cubic-yard dumpster.
If approved, the pickup fee would begin in January, with most homeowners seeing the charge as a new portion of their property tax bill.
Lisa Maruyama, president of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations, said the fee would have a serious impact on nonprofit agencies that now have their trash hauled at no charge.
Charging nonprofits for trash service goes against the notion that nonprofits should be exempt from taxes because they provide valuable community services, she said. "We really view this kind of fee as a tax, by any other name."
Several residents also expressed concerns about the bill.
Oahu resident David Takahashi said he worries about how single, elderly residents on a fixed income will be able to afford the fee. He suggested instead that the city eliminate policies giving tax breaks to nonprofit organizations.
East Honolulu resident Natalie Iwasa said the bill would reduce the inequity caused by requiring all taxpayers, including those required to pay private trash haulers, to pay for the city’s program, but would create a new inequity by charging everyone who gets trash pickup to pay the same fee, regardless of how much trash they produce.
Iwasa suggested the city look into charging people for trash pickup based on the actual amount they throw away, a concept endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina said she is looking at Iwasa’s idea, and would ask the administration to consider programs that would help those who cannot pay the additional $120 a year.