Rural and urban leaders agreed Thursday a solid waste fee should be fair and encourage everyone to recycle more.
But they remained divided about how to share the cost.
Leaders from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Orange County have two options:
▪ a $103 flat fee charged countywide, or
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▪ a two-tier fee that charges $94 a year to urban property owners, and $118 a year to rural property owners. Landlord could pass the fee onto their renters.
Low-income residents could get help paying their recycling bill through a county subsidy; roughly 700 residents use the subsidy now, officials said.
Both fee options would help expand rural curbside recycling to the entire county over the next three years, increasing the annual cost but potentially improving the county’s recycling rate.
While a flat fee garnered more support at Thursday’s Assembly of Governments meeting, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Town Council member Jim Ward stood by their convictions that it’s unfair for town residents to pay a higher fee while subsidizing mostly rural use of the county’s five convenience centers.
The fees could pay 35 percent to 40 percent of the centers’ operating costs. A recent UNC study, however, found that only 11 percent of town residents use the centers, compared with a previous study that put the number at 35 percent.
“The people in Chapel Hill and Carrboro and Hillsborough pay through their local, municipal taxes a portion to handle their regular trash,” Kleinschmidt said. “What (a flat fee) does is it subsidizes that larger and, for many rural residents, even more important use of the solid waste convenience center, which is for the disposal of general household waste.”
Others saw the issue differently.
A two-tier fee could be divisive, particularly in border areas, such as Rogers Road and parts of Hillsborough, where town and county residents live side by side, Hillsborough board member Kathleen Ferguson and Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich said.
Higher fees and convenience also are real concerns for rural residents, Ferguson said, while individualized services can create barriers to shared goals.
“It’s $9 a year, and within that, we will bring in, hopefully, the university, and we’ll bring in all elements,” she said. “That is a great opportunity for us.”
Commissioners Vice Chairman Barry Jacobs called those points persuasive, adding the county spends too much time on a perceived urban-rural divide.
“We have a much bigger opponent in Raleigh that’s going to bring things down on us that is not going to be good for any of our governments,” he said. “We need to not be picking at threads when we need to be a solid ball, because we’re going to have various challenges that we can only begin to address if we feel like we’re partners.”
A compromise would start a pilot program this year, allowing time to evaluate how it’s working. It would be easier to start with two fees and move to one, Kleinschmidt said.
But Carrboro Alderwoman Bethany Chaney, who favored a flat fee, said three years would be better.
“We’re making a lot of assumptions about efficiencies,” Chaney said. “And if we’re going to talk about fuel costs of our trucks, we need to also be talking about and looking at the fuel costs and expense of people who use their cars to bring their trash and recyclables to the convenience centers, and the CO2 emissions of those cars.”
Many rural residents have opposed expanding curbside service. They still would have to take their trash to the convenience centers, making it easier to take everything at once, residents said. Solid Waste Director Gayle Wilson said even with curbside service, some rural residents might have to tote full rollcarts up to a mile or more down narrow dirt and gravel driveways to meet the trucks.
The county’s Solid Waste Advisory Group, composed of government and UNC representatives, will draft a recommendation for the fee, which could raise $6.2 million for the recycling program. The county would use about $1.8 million from its operating fund to cover the rest.
The fee would be paid with county property taxes and wouldn’t apply to undeveloped or UNC land. The governments need an agreement by the end of April to have funding in place by July 1, Wilson said. Without an agreement, the county and towns would have to find another solution.
Orange County dropped two of three fees that previously paid for recycling after a 2012 Cabarrus County case raised questions about the authority to collect those fees. The county still collects a basic, $47 fee and levies a separate convenience center fee based on where a property owner lives and the type of home.
County tax revenues are paying this year for a third fee that urban and eligible rural curbside recycling customers typically would have paid. Residents now pay:
▪ Single-family, in town: $20 convenience center fee, $52 curbside recycling fee
▪ Single-family, rural, with curbside service: $40 convenience center fee, $38 curbside recycling fee
▪ Single-family, rural, without curbside service: $40 convenience center fee
▪ Multi-family: $4 convenience center fee, $19 curbside recycling fee