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The Portland Leaf Fee: Residents Required to Clean Streets or Pay Fees

Desperate for money, the city of Portland decided to invoke a leaf-removal fee this autumn. As reported by the Oregonian, the city hopes to raise as much as $800,000 by charging homeowners, renters and property management companies for removing leaves from streets. Fees range from $15 to $65 with an opt-out option based on the very reliable honor system. In addition, low income-citizens will pay a reduced rate.

How exactly, the city council and Mayor Sam Adams got away with having individuals pay for a public good is questionable. In fact, when Adams first proposed this idea in 2008, the city admitted that it was in the best interest of the people to keep the streets leaf-free, saying that leaf removal reduces slippery roads and flooded drains. According to OSU Economics Professor Patrick Emerson’s blog, ” public goods — they have elements of non-rivalry (one person’s consumption does not leave less for another) and non-excludability (you cannot prevent people from consuming)”. Therefore, streets are not only a public good, maintaining them is in the best interest of the people. So, if this is the case, why must a few suffer the fee? As Emerson wonders, should high-crime neighborhoods pay an extra fee to the police, should people who live next to parks have to pay more for those parks?

What’s more ironic is the hand-holding the city engages in with anything involving trees, when leaves are seemingly a private matter. According to city regulations , one must obtain a permit to plant, prune or remove a tree in the city right-of-way and even on private property sometimes. Yet a citizen is expected to clean up the leaves in the street in front of his or her house and if they don’t the city is going to clean up, no questions asked, and then mail bills?  This seems, quite simply, asinine.

Moreover, the incentives of the system are inherently flawed. As Emerson notes, “I think perhaps each block should pool and every house but one sweeps their leaves in front of one house and everyone chips in to play that house’s leaf fee.” Or, with even less effort one can easily opt-out. The program requirements are rather generous, according to the city website one must either “declare that they removed the street leaves themselves, they paid someone else for the service, or they have no street trees near their property and the trees in their yard do not drop leaves in or near the street…[or by] declaring that they would have managed the street leaves themselves if they had earlier notification about the fee and the opt-out process”. The incentive to actually pay the fee is nonexistent and the opt-out program just creates more paperwork.  With it being so easy to duck the fee and the costs involved with enforcing the fee, how much money is the city of Portland really going to make?

For you unfortunate Portlanders, here are a few ideas if you choose to opt-out (click here for the application and remember, no lying):

  • Toss the leaves from your portion of the street to your yard. Sit outside with a smug look as the leaf crew passes by.
  • Rake your leaves to someone else’s portion of the road, then pretend like nothing happened, smile and wave at your neighbors so they won’t be suspicious.
  • For a marginal cost take your leaves to a “leaf depot.”
  • Or, kindly drop them in front of Council Chambers City Hall, 1221 Southwest 4th Avenue, to show your appreciation for their stupidity.
  1. Melissa Haskin says:

    Thank you, thank you! This is actually my very first article- I am not, nor have I ever been affiliated with the ODE, I would much rather gag myself with a spoon than work for that publication.
    Glad I could save your Grandma some money. Hopefully she’ll buy you a beer.

  2. AD '07 says:

    Melissa- very quality reporting! You sound like an emerald convert, but good stuff! I gave my Grandma the waiver for the leaf charge, sounds like the City gov might not even send out a bill for something they have never charged for.

  3. Kenny Ocker says:

    If I were in Portland, I would leaf them where they were in an attempt to spite the city government.

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