From running your dog at a city dog park and parking your car, to visiting the local community center, the use of government services can be like feeding a vending machine as residents find themselves nickel and dimed for services that once cost little or nothing. Here are 10 places where you will now have to pay up. Call it a symptom of the Great Recession, as governments struggle to reconcile budget shortfalls in creative if unpopular ways.
1. Public Parks
Be sure to have cash in hand when heading out for a Sunday picnic. Starting Aug. 1 in Phoenix, Ariz., city mountain parks and reserves will charge $5 per day or $75 a year to park a car. The city's parks board had considered a $10 daily parking fee, but compromised.
2. Property and Tax information
If you're cruising the Information Highway, the city of East Lansing, Mich., charges a $2 fee to access property and tax information online. Property owners will still be able to get their property records and tax data for free online, but a detailed search of their property or search of other properties will cost $2.
3. Loo Tax
In Newark, N.J., city workers will soon have to start bringing their own toilet paper to work because the city isn't buying it anymore.
4. Parking on other people's lawns
Gainesville, Fla. now requires a $52 business tax to homeowners who allow University of Florida football fans to park on their lawns on game days. It's a unique (and some would say insidious) tax on a once-free service that isn't provided by the government, said Ed Braddy, a member of the Gainesville City Commission from 2002-08. The city manager dusted off an ordinance that wasn't enforced as a way to make $10,000 to $25,000 in city taxes, Braddy told WalletPop in a telephone interview. The city manager told the Gainesville Sun that he was enforcing the ordinance after getting complaints about off-street parking. Either way, Braddy says its taking money out of the hands of people who count on the tailgaters, and cuts down on parking lots.
"It's a time-honored tradition -- people drive in," he said. "Where are we going to tailgate?"
5. Community Center parties
"If you're going to use it, you're going to pay to use it," says Dave Hatter, a city council member in Fort Wright, Ken., since 1998, where they recently eliminated free use of a community center for parties. They now charge $100 per rental. The price was set with an expected 10-20% dropoff in usage due to the fee. But Hatter says he hasn't heard any complaints about the new policy.
Fort Wright has stable finances and a $7 million annual budget for its 6,000 residents, but the recession has caused it to look at other areas to charge users.
6. Parking at Parks
Hamilton County in Cincinnati requires a motor vehicle permit of $2 daily or $5 a year to park at its parks, and a parking fee at Fort Wright's parks is being discussed, Hatter said.
After this year the city will stop subsidizing a Civil War museum at one of its parks, telling the museum board that it will have to figure out how to come up with the money to keep the museum open, he said.
One problem with instituting more fees is that they can require police or other officials to enforce, said Fort Wright's Hatter, whose city has 20 employees, most of them police officers. It's not feasible, for example, to have police enforce parking fees at a city park.
7. Privatizing for Profit
In late December 2008, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley ramrodded through City Council a controversial lease of the city's parking meters to a LAZ Parking, a company run by Morgan Stanley, for $1.15 billion. Following the sale, rates more than quadrupled, free Sunday parking vanished, and enforcement of meter violations skyrocketed.
Today, less than 20% of that money is left, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story. The funds were supposed to last 75 years. Nor did it help Daley's popularity when news reports after the deal revealed that his nephew, William Daley Jr., is a Morgan Stanley executive -- or that the city, by rushing the deal through, potentially lost out on at least another $1 billion.
8. Didn't this used to be called bribery?
In Gainesville, Fla., where creativity seems to be common in adding fees to city services, paying an extra fee can get a building permit expedited, said Tony Domenech, a city commissioner for three years up until 2005. "I was stunned to find that out," Domenech said.
9. Pay for Poop
In Montgomery County, Md., park police will enforce new rules that turn a once-free dog park into a fee zone. Residents there will pay a $40 annual fee to use the county's dog parks, plus $45 for each additional dog. Dog owners caught not paying face a $50 fine.
Permit holders will be given colored tags to put on their dogs while in the dog parks so park police can easily see which dogs are legally there.
10. No insurance? Extra fee
Some individual fees are masked to cover people who use the service but don't pay. Tom, a resident of Norwich, N.Y., who didn't want his full name used, said his local hospital charged him $90 for an uninsured service fee after he got blood work done there. The hospital incorrectly assumed he was uninsured and told him that the medically uninsured pay the fee to help pay for other uninsured people. The people who can afford insurance the least have to pay more to help others like them. His fee was dropped when the hospital obtained his correct insurance information.
So where does the money go?
Turning a trip to a city park or public beach into a trip to a vending machine leaves residents wondering where their tax money goes, said Karen Kraut, director of the Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative, a network of state level advocacy groups at United for a Fair Economy. It turns citizens into consumers, and creates resentment to use a public service where everything is a commodity, Kraut said in a telephone interview with WalletPop.
"In general nickel and diming is less courageous than raising taxes" such as the income tax, she said. The federal government should help states financially, and state legislators should be brave enough to pass progressive tax reform where the highest earners pay more, she said. Paying a $5 fee to go to a park hurts a lot less for a millionaire than it does the average person, Kraut said.
"It's a cheap out by politicians who can't support a broad-based tax increase," she said. "It's really a disincentive."
And don't expect any of these fees to go away when things get better. Just as any parent who gives their child an allowance knows, once you give them the money, it's difficult to take an allowance away. Illinois Tollway users know this first hand; when the roads were built decades ago, politicians promised to turn them into freeways once they were paid for. It never happened--though the tollway employs lots of high-priced attorneys and staff today as a patronage haven.
So take it to the bank, if you will: Even when the economy improves, the new fees for city services are unlikely to go away, said Hatter, the Kentucky councilman.
"At this point," he declared, "I would never go back on this."
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Unpopular taxes and fees cropping up everywhere in the nickel and dime economy