PORTLAND – A City Council committee is considering rejecting City Manager Joe Gray’s proposal to raise the price of Portland’s blue “pay-as-you-throw” trash bags.

Councilors who oppose the additional 25 cents for each small bag and 50 cents for each large bag say the plan would boost revenue for the city without improving trash or recycling services.

But rejecting the proposal would come with its own price: The anticipated $350,000 that higher-priced bags would generate could no longer be counted on to balance the budget. City officials would have to make up the difference with some other source of revenue or spending cuts.

The council’s Finance Committee also told Gray and his staff Thursday that it wants the tax rate increase required by the municipal budget to be less than 1 percent. That means $400,000 in cuts from Gray’s budget or other funding sources besides the property tax.

Addressing the prospect of a $750,000 hole in Gray’s proposed $196 million budget for 2010-11, Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance told the committee, “That’s a lot of money at this stage.”

The committee asked Gray to give it some options for balancing the budget by next Friday, when it is scheduled to vote on a budget to recommend to the full council.

Committee members said the city should consider using part of its fund balance to help balance the budget.

Finance Committee member John Anton was the most vocal opponent of the price increase for the trash bags, arguing that it is an “equity issue” because it would shift the subsidy of the city’s trash and recycling services from property taxpayers to people who buy the bags.

In addition, he said, a new task force that aims to improve those services may want to look at a price increase for the bags as way to pay for expanded services, and Gray’s proposal effectively would remove that option.

Committee member John Coyne appeared supportive of Anton’s position, and committee Chair Jill Duson said she was undecided.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who along with Anton co-chairs the two-month-old Solid Waste Task Force, said in an interview that she opposes the price increase for the blue bags.

When the program was created in 1999, the city also started a curbside recycling program. At the time, the price of the bags was linked to expanded services, Leeman said.

Gray is now proposing to raise the price of the bags without any additional services, she said.

“We have increased that fee to carry more and more of the cost of the waste budget line item as opposed to funding the recycling program itself, for which it was intended,” she said.

When the price was last raised, in 2006, many people bought more bags before the price increase, so fewer bags were sold in 2007. This time, city officials would change the color of the bags to prevent hoarding.

Total volumes for trash and recycled items have declined since 2008 because consumers have cut back on spending during the economic downturn, officials say.

Even with the price increase, Portland would have the lowest priced pay-as-you-throw bags in Greater Portland. The cost of a small bag would be $1; a large bag would cost $2.

Residents in Gorham, North Yarmouth and Pownal pay $1.25 for small bags and $2.50 for large bags. Falmouth residents pay $1.46 for small bags and $2.08 for larger bags.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

tbell@pressherald.com