Under the Sun
In taxes vs. spending, something's got to give
AS Joni Mitchell warbled, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," and in this case what went missing was a couple of garbage pick-ups and, boy, as my nephew used to say, things got really "stink-a" in the neighborhood.
Not a lot of trash gets generated here in the family compound. Except for recyclable newspapers and heaps of magazines, waste at my place usually amounts to a half-full Times supermarket bag a day.
But come the holidays, something happens. Garbage seems to swell, accumulating far faster than normal.
A lot of it is due to excess packaging that envelops everything you buy these days. A rib roast for Christmas dinner was tangled in three layers of plastic to anchor it to the Styrofoam yellow tray. Another three layers swaddled the roast itself. Those alone didn't bulk up the mass, but a cookie tin here, a couple of FedEx boxes there and pretty soon, that two-wheeled gray bin was reaching maximum capacity.
By the time the garbage guy arrived, it was choked, as were most of the neighbors' up and down the block.
I didn't need the reduced-pickup plight to rouse appreciation for the city garbage service, having experienced the do-it-yourself dumping that's normal at my Big Island home. Neither did I begrudge garbage workers the only two holidays they get off each year when other government employees enjoy three-day weekends almost every month.
Trash service is essential in a city like Honolulu. There's no orderly way for each household to drop off garbage at the landfill as is done in rural areas. So the city hires people to do the work, with home- and landowners footing the bill through property taxes.
Right now, those words will elicit a whole lot of complaints as residents have seen property values leap to levels they never imagined when they built their houses. People who put down roots in modest- income districts decades ago are astonished to find their humble three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath abodes pegged at a million bucks, and they can't or don't want to pay the higher taxes the elevated valuations demand.
Enter the city's political leaders. Spurred by possible ballot-box retribution and, in some cases, sincere concern about the squeeze higher taxes would place on a spectrum of voters, nearly all City Council members and Mayor Hannemann have proposed ways to cut back their payments.
What's missing are attempts to cut back on costs. When Council members Barbara Marshall and Todd Apo suggested that the mayor do the clipping, Hannemann turned the chore back on them, asking them to list what services they'd like to see pared in their districts.
As defensive as his response may have been, the mayor's questions were valid and they are ones taxpayers should ask themselves.
No one really wants to pay more taxes, but everyone wants grass and brush at parks trimmed and tended. People want their driver's license renewals issued quickly. They want the potholes on their usual routes patched swiftly. They want civil defense operations staffed in case of disasters, satellite city halls open for their convenience, lifeguard, firefighters and other emergency personnel standing ready, storm drains cleared of debris, sewer systems to process wastes, police officers to protect them from bad folks and myriad other functions the city government performs on their behalf.
All of these require money, so the discussion about equitable property taxes must involve the stretch of services -- what people truly need, what they can do without. But people also ought to consider the quality of living in Honolulu, what distinctions it should have, what characteristics make it a good place to call home. These are the values worth paying for.
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Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org