County Executive Isiah Leggett believes scaling back the county’s bag tax would be “premature,” and believes the policy needs more time before its effectiveness in limiting litter in rivers and streams can be evaluated, a staff member told members of a Montgomery County Council committee Monday.
Leggett (D) believes the policy that charges a 5-cent fee for each bag in retail establishments is proving effective in limiting the number of bags being used by customers in the county, and should be given at least two years to allow for data to be collected before any changes are considered, county Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kathleen Boucher told the council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee.
In January 2012, the county began charging a 5-cent tax on most carry-out bags, with a few exemptions such as paper “doggy bags” at restaurants. The new bill would exempt plastic “doggy bags” as well as paper ones.
The bill being considered would apply the tax only to businesses that make more than 2 percent of their gross sales from food.
The county collected about $2.2 million from the tax in its first 12 months, double what was expected. The money pays for stormwater management projects through the Water Quality Protection Fund.
Evidence shows that the tax is keeping more bags out of streams, but the ones that are found aren’t all grocery bags, county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Monday.
Bob Hoyt, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said stations used by the county are collecting data. But he said there is strong anecdotal evidence that they’re seeing fewer bags in streams.
Making changes now could undermine the environmental improvements the county has already seen, Lacefield said.
The committee voted 2-1 to send the bill for consideration by the full council, with an amendment that would include alcohol sales as food for the purposes of determining the 2 percent threshold.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, who sponsored the bill, and Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, a co-sponsor, voted in favor of sending the bill on.
Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Takoma Park opposed it, saying he believed the bill should look at other ways to tighten the number of exemptions.
Berliner said he supported the original bag tax proposal, but has since come to question its breadth and believes the county “overreached” when it passed the law.
He said he believes a tax can change people’s behavior to the extent of bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, but he doesn’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to bring them to department stores or other retail sites.
Berliner said he believes limiting the tax to stores that sell food would still go a long way toward cutting down on litter.
“They are not Macy’s bags that we find in our streams, for the most part,” he said.
Riemer said he thinks most people are OK with paying a fee that will reduce litter and help clean up streams, and he’s afraid any changes will “blow the policy open” and damage the county’s efforts.
Floreen said she believes customers’ reactions aren’t as negative as they were when the tax first went into effect, and people have gotten used to paying it.
Berliner argued that even with the exemptions, the largest issuers of bags — such as Giant, Safeway, Target, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter — would still be covered by the tax.
Councilman Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, another co-sponsor of the bill, said he has seen a change in the number of people bringing reusable bags to grocery stores, but not in other retail settings.
He said the county could do the most good for the environment by focusing on the areas where they truly can change people’s behavior.
Hoyt said the county is trying to measure the change the tax has had in changing people’s behavior.
“What we need is a little more time ... to survey people,” he said.