Montgomery to consider narrowing scope of bag tax

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Photo - (ThinkStock photo)
(ThinkStock photo)
Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Montgomery County lawmakers may consider narrowing the scope of the county's bag tax.

The tax, which took effect in January, requires all county retailers to charge customers a 5-cent fee for each bag they use, with the exception of customers taking home prepared food from restaurants.

But County Council President Roger Berliner said Thursday that he would like to re-evaluate the tax at the end of the year to determine if it applies to too many types of retailers.

Bag tax revenue
Month Revenue Bags Registered retailers*
January $163,337 4,083,425 548
February $171,526 4,288,150 666
March $175,171 4,379,275 746
April $176,874 4,421,850 803
May $181,195 4,529,868 851
June $197,588 4,939,678 891
July $184,843 4,621,087 910
*Retailers are required to register with the county after they have collected $100 in bag taxes. For chain stores, one chain, i.e., Giant or Safeway, counts as one retailer.

"I do have empathy for people who go into a jewelry store or go into a Macy's [and have to bring their own bag]," he said. "It bespeaks the issues of overreaching."

Between January and the end of July -- the last month for which data are available -- customers paid $1.25 million in taxes for 31.3 million bags, according to the county Department of Finance. The county estimates it will collect more than $2 million for more than 50 million bags this year.

Because the tax requires one full-time employee to administer the tax at a cost of $81,000 a year, it is estimated to earn the county a net $2 million. The money is slated to go to the county's Water Quality Protection Charge fund, which pays for stream restoration and the creation of rain gardens, sand filters and other facilities aimed at managing storm water runoff.

The revenue numbers are higher than the county wants, Berliner said, emphasizing that the purpose of the tax is to change consumer habits and reduce the number of bags used, not make money.

Though the number of bags used and the amount of revenue earned increased every month from January through June, this was expected because retailers do not have to register through the online payment system until they have collected $100, or charged for 2,000 bags, said county spokesman Patrick Lacefield. The numbers dropped for the first time in July, which he expects to continue.

"We really do want to take in less money with this," he said.

It's not clear whether the bag tax is actually benefiting the environment, said county Department of Environmental Protection Director Bob Hoyt, who said he hopes to have more information next year.

Bag taxes have grown in popularity in recent months and have popped up across California, where plastic bags are banned and paper bags cost 10 cents each.

The District has had a 5-cent bag tax in place since Jan. 1, 2010, though it only applies to businesses with a license to sell food or alcohol.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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