Montgomery County Council considers scaling back bag tax -- Gazette.Net



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Barely a year after Montgomery County imposed a tax on carryout bags, it could scale it back.

Four members of the County Council have backed a measure to stop charging the tax on bags at department stores and restaurants.

Montgomery began levying a 5-cent tax on most carryout bags in January 2012 to help change residents’ attitudes from blasé to environmentally conscious and to reduce the number of bags in waterways. The money collected pays for stormwater management projects through the Water Quality Protection Fund.

But on Tuesday, the day after Earth Day, some council members said they want to nix portions of the tax.

Councilman Roger Berliner, who led the effort in 2011 to impose the tax, introduced a bill Tuesday along with Council Vice President Craig L. Rice, Councilman George L. Leventhal and Councilwoman Nancy Floreen to essentially limit the tax to bags at grocery stores and other retailers that gross more than 2 percent of their sales from food.

Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said he always thought that the law’s broad scope might be overreaching, while Floreen (D-At Large) of Garrett Park said she did not support it from the get-go.

“My overarching concern is that we breed resentment in the process,” Berliner said, referencing retailers like Macy’s. “I feel trimming this proposal in this manner is a net plus, not a negative.”

Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said some of the negative feedback he has heard in the community include profiling for shoplifters and challenges for clothing retailers.

The other side of Jefferson Street was critical of the change.

“It’s a curious thing that the day after Earth Day, council members step up to weaken the environment,” county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said. “We don’t feel there needs to be a change. I think Earth Day is not a day when should be backsliding on the environment.”

Beth Mullin of the Rock Creek Conservancy said in a January email that since enactment of bag legislation, the number of bags her organization finds in and along Rock Creek has dropped dramatically.

“Between April 2011 and April 2012, the number of plastic bags collected in Montgomery County dropped from 5,274 to 3,957, a decline of 25% just a few months after the bag law went into effect,” she wrote. “Our cleanup leaders report that in many areas their sites are significantly cleaner than in past years, and our numbers back that up.”

Patterned off a similar law in Washington, D.C., the council levied the tax on most carryout bags, with a few noted exceptions.

Paper bags provided at restaurants for take-out, bags for prescription drugs, plastic bags for perishables, plastic bags sold for yard waste, garbage, pet waste, dry-cleaning and newspapers, and bags provided at farmers markets were originally exempt from the tax.

And depending on whom you ask, behavior is changing.

“It’s been 455 days to be exact, and what we’re talking about doing is changing a lifetime of behavior,” Lacefield said. “I think we’re already doing that pretty well.”

Montgomery County collected about $2.2 million from the tax in its first 12 months, double what was expected, and Lacefield said negative feedback has been at a minimum.

If the tax remains as is, the county expects to collect $2.5 million from taxes on about 60 million bags in fiscal 2013.

Berliner argued that the tax is changing some behavior, but it is also making people angry with their government, a shift in consciousness the county does not want.

“I have struggled mightily with this issue, and ultimately concluded that we will serve our residents and our environment better in the long run by making a modest change to the scope of the original legislation,” he wrote in a statement.

Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said there remains confusion in the public about where and how the tax is applied.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s a lot of misunderstanding,” he said. “I think having grocery bags is much more widely accepted and better understood ... and I think trimming back, as the chairman [Berliner] has said, the application of the bag tax, is appropriate and will increase public acceptance of our efforts.”

A public hearing on the bill has been scheduled for June 18 at 7:30 p.m.

kalexander@gazette.net