Leveling the Playing Field

The Southeastern Public Service Authority (SEPSA), a solid waste authority in Tidewater, Va., wants to impose a generator “fee” on residents and businesses in its eight member communities. SEPSA says the fee would be used to subsidize its landfill and disposal facilities because it can't compete with private sector “mega-landfills” in Virginia.

I get a kick out of the phrase “mega-landfill.” The opponents of regional landfills in Virginia came up with the “mega” term because it conjures up images of massive, gargantuan monsters dwarfing the landscape. Yet SEPSA's disposal facilities are as big as those of some of its “mega” competitors. I guess one man's mega is another's mini.

Generator fees are all the rage these days. Usually, they are imposed when local solid waste authorities lose faith in their ability to compete with private sector facilities. That, in itself, is an admission that something is wrong. Competitive facilities don't need subsidies. But SEPSA insists that it needs the generator fee to create a level playing field.

I'm a die-hard fan of the Baltimore Orioles and I hate the New York Yankees, but I don't insist that the O's start their games against the Yankees with an automatic 5-run lead so that the playing field will be level. I want the O's to win, but I want them to win because they are the better team, not because they rigged the game.

And of course, fee advocates insist their fee isn't a tax. No, they say, it's just a modest charge for the privilege of having available disposal capacity. Nevermind that all the residents and businesses will be forced to pay. Nevermind that plenty of disposal capacity already exists in their neck of the woods. SEPSA just wants to make sure that its facilities can “compete.” And if it gets a competitive advantage through the taxpayer subsidy, well that's just the luck of the level playing field.

But if the fee isn't a tax, how will SEPSA collect it from nonpayers? My guess is SEPSA will do what my home county in Maryland does. Montgomery County has a “system benefit charge” that guarantees the county incinerator stays financially solvent. (The waste-to-energy plant was built to burn 1,800 tons of trash per day, but alas, only receives 1,300 tons a day.)

County officials insist that their charge is a fee, not a tax. Yet when I asked what would happen if I didn't pay the fee, they said that they would slap a tax lien on my property. That sounds like a tax to me. As President Ronald Reagan used to say, if it looks like a tax, walks like a tax and squawks like a tax, it's a tax.

The real problem here is the nature of competition. The dinosaurs couldn't compete with evolving life forms, so they became extinct. SEPSA doesn't want to end up that way. But if it truly wants to compete on a level playing field, it should trim down to a competitive weight, get the best possible players, execute a winning strategy, and fight hard and honestly. Then, it won't need to start every game with a 5-run advantage.

The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations. Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]