I grew up in the glory days of Camden, where residents who lived in town could just rake their leaves into the street and the town would come along with a leaf sucking vacuum truck and take them all away. It was a wonderful childhood memory on Spruce Street where my dad lived. What an easy and convenient thing to have one truck go around and pick up the leaves.

The practice was begun by Town Manager Elmer Savage in 1984, the year I was born. To me, it was the way things had always been. I grew up splitting my time between my mom’s farm in north Union, where the road is the last place anyone would consider raking their leaves, and Camden, a town where the undesirable things on one’s lawn could be swept into the public way to magically disappear.

It was the same with our trash. Even though the Town of Camden wouldn’t come and pick it up, it could be made to disappear for free by taking it to the transfer station. My dad always made a big deal out of calling it the transfer station and not the dump.

Part way through high school, though, the bad news came. No more free leaf pickup service. The town suggested composting, bagging, or hiring a landscaping company, and things were never the same on Spruce Street.

I couldn’t wait to suggest bringing it back when I joined the Budget Committee as an adult. How hard could it be? With all the taxes we already pay, surely it wouldn’t be that much to just help residents out a little by going around and magically making their leaf problem disappear. Maybe an argument could even be made about carbon footprints and having one truck go around rather than a lot of people hauling them off separately.

It turns out it was a lot more complicated than I imagined. I don’t think I even was brave enough to bring it up to the Budget Committee officially. A side comment to a couple fellow committee members was enough to realize it wasn’t something that would endear me to anyone who had been paying close attention. I imagine it took a little bravery from elected officials at the time who had the good sense to pull the plug on allowing private property owners to rake their leaves onto public property to be picked up at public expense.

What started as an effort to clear the storm drains in the downtown evolved into what former Town Manager Roger Moody referred to as “a monster” that would virtually paralyze the Public Works Department for at least 6 weeks each fall. Residents outside the immediate downtown began to point out the injustice of using taxpayer resources to serve private interests.

To say nothing of the issues it causes for anyone who needed to use the sidewalks, or the fact people couldn’t stick with the town’s schedule, it fostered the habit of sweeping anything undesirable from one’s yard into the public way; a metaphor if ever there was one.

Two years after leaf pickup ended, we got another blow. It would no longer be free for Camden residents to take their trash to Rockport. The dump was running multi-year deficits, borrowing money to stay open, and it was costing Camden residents almost $500,000 a year for our share of the 4-town operation, which is closer to $900,000 when adjusted for inflation. There were two options: Increase taxes even more or charge fees based on the amount of trash each person generates. Town officials chose the latter and voters overwhelmingly agreed.

People liked being able to throw stuff away for free but not so much that they wanted to pay for everyone else to do it too. Camden taxpayers today pay less than a third of what they were on the hook for 20 years ago. How much you pay depends mostly on the amount you throw away.

Not everyone agrees on what is worth funding and planning for collectively, as opposed to paid for by the individual. It is not always simple to decide. Public bathrooms are not used equally by all residents but even those who haven’t used them in years tend to like the idea they exist, if for no other reasons than to prevent people from seeking out alternatives.

Some argue free trash disposal for all, subsidized by government spending, is the best way to prevent roadside dumping. If it weren’t so expensive to properly dispose of trash, maybe that would be true.

Many things that seem free are actually made possible by government spending. If you look at the value of land in Camden today, it should be pretty simple to ascertain every 200 square foot parking spot is highly coveted space that is available for a car at the expense of not being available for something else. When the town holds on to parcels, pays to maintain the pavement, drainage, striping, and enforcement of the rules associated with free parking, it isn’t free at all. Usually, we intuitively know some of this is true but still underestimate the true costs.

The good news is we decide what is worth investing in. We can make almost anything “free to the user” by paying for it as a group in the form of property taxes. The same is true about property that is owned by the town. But just like with trash disposal and leaf pickup, the costs of providing something for free are often higher than is understood by residents.

We can have free and abundant parking for cars or we can have park benches and green space, or we can have affordable housing or places to walk your dog. The town pays $60,000 a year for a lease purchase to provide free parking at the Knox Mill lots. We invested $200,000 in resurfacing the lot at the corner of Mechanic Street next to the old Five and Dime. Maintenance and repairs at the Public Landing lot will be a lot more than that. We pay a parking enforcement officer and revenue from tickets doesn’t even come close to paying for that. There’s free parking at the fire station and many other places and each lot carries with it hundreds of thousands in long term costs. This is a significant portion of your tax bills and infrastructure costs are rising all the time. Complaints about parking are, of course, still persistent despite the heavy investment.

The question is whether the the public as a whole wants to continue to subsidize something that is getting more costly all the time or if they want us to try and recover some of the costs. I don’t care as much about the outcome as I care about giving people the opportunity to make informed decisions about the true costs.

Personally, I agree with many people who point out parking is a poor use of some of the town’s most valuable real estate. Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who paid for the cleanup of the Public Landing and a design by the Olmsted Brothers that the town never completed, wanted at least half of the parking to be green space. That would cost money, too, and someone has to pay, either by raising taxes or generating revenue in some other way. We don’t let boats park for free, but we could. Currently, we don’t even have enough space for those on a waiting list to pay. We turn down requests for small businesses to lease parking on the Public Landing for food trucks or popcorn stands in the name of free parking. I don’t know if that is right or wrong.

The residents of Camden own some very valuable real estate in a place that is marketed all over the world as a destination. Not all residents benefit equally from tourism or from parking lots just as not all of us throw away the same amount of trash.

Free is a lot more expensive than we realize for some things. The question is how much is too much are you willing to pay for free parking? I don’t care what we decide, but it would be nice to have civil conversation about it.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board Vice-Chair. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.