Thursday, June 17, 2010

STL City Proposes Trash Fee; May Violate State Constitution

By Jake Wagman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — In a push to plug a gaping budget hole, city officials are hoping to begin charging residents about $100 a year for trash pick-up. Applying the fee incorrectly, though, could leave the city with a pile of legal rubbish.

In a recent hearing of the Board of Aldermen’s Ways and Means Committee, the city’s top lawyer, Patti Hageman, was asked whether the city’s plan runs afoul of Missouri’s so-called “Hancock Amendment,” which prohibits local governments from raising taxes without a vote of the people.

The city wants to charge $8 a month for trash collection. State legislation that would have allowed the city to add the charge to property tax bills fell short in Jefferson City. The city may chose, instead, to attach the charge onto water bills.

Why not send a separate bill?

For one, the additional costs for collection would partially negate the gains from charging for trash pick-up.

Second, the city needs to present the fee in a format that residents are likely to pay. Because, if they don’t pay, what’s the city going to do — let the trash pile-up?

Legally, however, trash pick-up poses another concern. City officials need to show the new charge really is a service fee — and not a new tax. Otherwise, it would run counter to Hancock and could be ripe for legal challenge.

“Missouri municipalities have been doing this all across the state without voter approval,” Hageman said at Tuesday’s committee hearing.

She’s right — smaller cities have curbed free trash service as the sagging economy has put a dent in their bottom lines.

But St. Louis officials must be extra careful to charge just property owners who use the trash service — not, say, vacant building owners, at least not at the same rate. Otherwise, the charge may be viewed as simply a revenue raiser — a.k.a., a tax hike — not a fee for service.

Either way, Hageman is prepared for legal challenge, even if the city’s trash plan is sound.

“Every time people get charged something, they are looking for ways not to pay,” Hageman said. “So they sue us.”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Good Luck St. Louis in Challenging the Hancock Amendment and the State of Missouri.

    Big Challenge. Hope you win.