AUGUSTA — A proposal to require stores to charge customers 5 cents each for plastic shopping bags may ultimately be decided by residents, not city councilors.

Unless proposals to either ban or restrict the use of such bags statewide are approved first.

Some city councilors, who discussed a proposed plastic shopping bag fee Thursday, as a way to discourage shoppers from using them, said the question of whether to charge a fee for bags could be best decided by voters in a citywide referendum.

“My feeling is I’d just as soon send it out to voters,” said Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind, who said he’s heard from constituents on both sides of the issue. “If they approve it, good, I’d be fine with that. I’m having a tough time making a call on it, because it’s all over the map.”

The proposal, based on ordinances adopted by other Maine municipalities including Portland, wouldn’t ban plastic bags as some municipalities, including Manchester, have done, but it would require stores to charge customers 5 cents to get a plastic bag to carry the items they purchase.

The stores would keep the money generated from charging for the bags.

Resident Andrew Hill, speaking in opposition to requiring stores to charge a fee for plastic bags, said thicker reusable plastic shopping bags have been shown to have a larger carbon impact on the environment than single use bags. He said the fee amounts to a new tax on anyone shopping in the city.

“I oppose it because the council is proposing the ordinance with little community or public input, to establish this feel-good, symbolic ordinance,” said Hill, who said he has a degree in environmental science, has worked in a landfill in the past, and retired in Augusta. “How does the average Augusta citizen feel about paying additional monies to shop at Augusta businesses? I’d view it as a tax, because it’s a government-mandated taking of my money.”

He said a family that uses 35 to 45 bags a week would pay about $90 a year in bag fees, on top of their property taxes.

Asked by Mayor David Rollins if he would be in favor of the proposal going to voters to decide in a referendum, Hill said he would.

In January a majority of city councilors indicated, informally, they would not support a proposal to either ban plastic bags or require stores to charge 5 cents per bag for customers to get one.

But Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, the prime proponent for rules restricting the use of plastic shopping bags in the city, said she still wanted to bring a proposal forward, to try to help reduce the amount of plastic going into the local waste stream. She declined to drop the issue in January, saying she wanted the issue to go to a vote, so it would be on the record how each councilor voted on the plastic bag issue.

“I’m pursuing it through because I’ve been encouraged by my constituents who want this,” Conti said of why she asked for a proposal for councilors to consider. “The purpose of this is to make people more mindful about the plastic they’re putting into the environment. We are a retail shopping destination and therefore a lot of plastic bag waste is being generated in this community, and I’d like to see that paid attention to. And stopped.”

Some councilors who previously spoke in opposition to passing a local bag ordinance said they could support sending such an ordinance to a referendum vote by residents.

City Manager William Bridgeo warned that the next two elections, in June and November, are likely to have light turnouts due to a lack of major races.

“If you’re looking for a voter mandate, there could be criticism that, if only 200 people voted, that’s not much of a validation,” Bridgeo said.

Lind has expressed concerns the additional money for bags could place an economic burden on poor and elderly residents. Councilors noted people reuse the bags for multiple uses.

Rollins and At-Large Councilor Jennifer Day, in addition to Conti, sponsored the plastic bag fee ordinance.

Day said there are ways around the potential economic burden requiring the bag fee could have on poor people, such as stores providing a place where shoppers could bring their bags back where other shoppers could then use them.

“I think there are some creative ways we could get around it being an economic burden on some people,” Day said when the proposal was discussed last week. “But the environmental impact is a burden on everyone.”

Councilors didn’t vote on the proposed ordinance requiring stores to charge 5 cents for plastic bags Thursday, as it was only the first reading, of two required readings. Councilors are expected to vote on the proposal at their next business meeting, which is currently scheduled for March 21. Bridgeo said councilors could propose, then, to send the ordinance to voters to decide.

Some councilors noted state legislation has been proposed to ban, or discourage the use of, plastic shopping bags statewide.

Lind said the city should wait to see whether the state bans plastic bags or not, rather than take up city staff and councilors’ time working on local local regulations.

The proposal Augusta ordinance states, in part, that “studies have documented that single-use carryout plastic bags litter the environment, block storm drains and endanger wildlife” and the city’s taxpayers “bear the costs associated with the effects of single-use carryout plastic bags on the solid waste stream, litter, drainage and wildlife.”

 

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]
Twitter: @kedwardskj

 

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