Very proud of John Callahan for thinking outside the box on the latest budget in Bethlehem. Rather than just cutting more city jobs or raising property taxes, Callahan’s going for some “structural” reforms that will make both city government and city residents better off.
The most important is the switch to a single trash hauler:
Heading into his final year in office, the mayor plans to take on a difficult political fight and hire a single hauler to cart city garbage – eliminating Bethlehem’s longstanding system of requiring property owners to hire their own hauler from a list of city-approved garbage collection companies.
Callahan argued that a single hauler system would save the average city household $110 a year while providing the city with a new source of revenue that is not property tax.
The proposal is likely to draw fire from the 20 or so contractors — many of them small mom-and-pop operations — that make their living in the city and a number of residents who believe they are saving money or getting better service by hiring their own hauler.
The idea that most people save money by contracting individually with a trash hauler has always been pure fantasy. Bethlehem residents pay more than anyone else in the LV for trash collection, and have more trash on the street for it. When the public coffers have been flush with cash, there’s been no real need to dispense with this fairytale, but now that every budget involves choices between more layoffs and tax hikes, harder heads must prevail.
We know that single hauler is cheaper and and delivers better service. Palmer Township just studied the issue ahead of their switch to single hauler and they found that automated collection by a single hauler is cheapest and best. David DiGiacinto says he doesn’t think there’ll be enough time to debate this, but what is there to debate? Just go ask Palmer to see the results of their study.
The other proposals I like are selling the five city-owned parking lots to the BPA and the first responders fee on ticket sales.
Parking is a market good, not a public good. It has neither of the two qualities that a thing must have to be a public good. Therefore, the city should not be in the business of providing parking. Eventually I’d like to see the LV cities limit their involvement in the parking market to pricing curb spaces at markets. Variable pricing for curb spaces is another “structural” reform that would raise more money, but BPA should probably wait another year to let people get used to the electronic meters. Cities need to own that parking because it’s the public roads. They don’t need to own surface parking lots or parking garages. Businesses can and do make money from operating parking lots and parking garages. Eventually I’d like to see the BPA sell off its garages to private owners and its surface lots to developers who want to build buildings on them. Selling the city-owned lots was a step in the right direction.
The first responders fee is another good idea. Callahan’s right that large events and concerts require a police presence, so it makes sense to put more of the cost on the ticket buyers than on the general public. By the time people get to the Checkout page to purchase their concert tickets, an extra $2.50 isn’t going to dissuade anyone from going to see the band. It’s a nuisance sure, but so are all taxes. The key is figuring out how elastic the demand is – are people going to stop buying the thing you’re taxing, or are they going to grumble and pay up anyway? This seems like a clear case where people are going to grumble and pay up.
On EMS, I appreciate that people think it would be hard to switch to County-run 911 dispatch for various reasons, but I still think it’s a good idea. German transportation planners have a saying that I think is applicable to this situation: Organization before Electronics before Concrete. Applied to city services I’d say it’s something like Organization before Tax Changes before Tax Increases.
Yes, it would be a challenge at first for city police to get used to working with County dispatchers. It’s hard to make different organizations work together. But should that mean you just keep increasing taxes to pay for 911 services? I don’t think so. I think it means you just need to try harder to find a way to make it work.