Supervisors need to question big garbage rate hikes

POSTED: 4/20/18

Author: Mimi Willard

Publication: Marin Independent Journal


At its meeting Tuesday, Marin’s Board of Supervisors will likely approve a 9.3 percent increase in rates billed by Marin Sanitary Service to residents of unincorporated Central Marin. The typical residential bill would rise to around $500 annually. Customers should attend and voice their concerns.

Last week, supervisors greenlighted a 12.1 percent increase in refuse bills paid by Recology’s West Marin customers.

The fox is guarding the hen house. “Our” supervisors control the award of, and rate increases on, a monopoly refuse contract in each unincorporated area.

Marin County currently receives a 15 percent franchise fee on such contracts. It’s essentially a county surcharge built into the customer’s bill.

Franchise fee income goes into the general fund. In 2017, the county reaped $519,343 from Marin Sanitary alone, and over $1 million from all refuse contracts.

During the Great Recession, Marin’s supervisors increased the refuse franchise fee from 10 percent to 15 percent. This helped plug some of the budget hole created by falling property tax revenues.

In 2019, the county expects property tax revenues will rise “only” 5 percent. That’s insufficient to keep pace with escalating pension and health care costs. Supervisors hope to eliminate a projected $4 million operating deficit without layoffs.

Surprise, surprise: The county again proposes to substantially hike its revenues from refuse contracts, by imposing a new 3 percent “regulatory compliance fee.” This adds about $200,000 to the county’s annual haul, growing over time.

The new fee increases the county’s total fee surcharge percentage from 15 percent to 18 percent.

This will be added to customer rates — and bills — of all franchise refuse companies: Marin Sanitary, Mill Valley Refuse, Bay Cities Refuse and Recology.

The regulatory compliance fee purportedly covers county costs associated with new state mandates on recycling, food waste, etc. Staff reports to the supervisors haven’t provided any figures substantiating those costs. The new fee goes into the county’s general fund. It can be used for anything.

Are the county’s refuse “fees” a tax in disguise?

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association says: Any regulatory service fee exceeding the county’s costs incurred in providing that service is a tax. Moreover, any franchise fee exceeding the value of a hauler’s special use of public rights-of-way is also a tax. Under Proposition 218, only voters can approve any new local taxes.

Meanwhile, supervisors repeatedly greenlight big “cost of services” rate increases for Marin Sanitary. Compounded, these exceed 18 percent over three years (assuming supervisors rubberstamp county staff’s rate recommendation on April 24). There’s no incentive for Marin Sanitary to economize nor for the county to press Marini Sanitary to do so.

In recent years, supervisors unanimously approved big hikes to Marin Sanitary rates, which are among the county’s highest. At rate hearings, supervisors asked no tough questions.

It’s the supervisors’ job to watch out for us ratepayer-voters. They are hopelessly conflicted by the need to keep the gravy train rolling.

Supervisors Judy Arnold, Katie Rice and Kate Sears have each accepted large, serial donations to their “campaigns” — regardless of whether it’s an election year — from Marin Sanitary Service-affiliated individuals and entities. These include Garbarino family members and “Resource Conservation PAC” (whose address ties to Marin Sanitary’s).

Since mid-2012, incumbent supervisors reported nearly $31,000 in Marin Sanitary Service-affiliated campaign contributions. Arnold alone accepted almost $11,000.

There’s been no discussion of recusal. Nor, to my knowledge, has any supervisor declined a campaign contribution. This situation, while not illegal, erodes taxpayer voters’ trust, as does the possibility that a portion of the “fees” might be taxes that legally require voter approval.

It’s time our supervisors make clear, through their actions, that their top priority is representing and protecting taxpayer-voters’ interests. If not, we should replace them.

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