Council splits on tax-rate hikes for parks, garbage

05/29/2014 5:10 PM

02/15/2015 11:24 AM

By consensus, Durham City Council members gave their unofficial approval Thursday for a half-cent property tax-rate increase dedicated to maintaining the city’s parks and trails.

They put off any decision on eliminating the current $1.80 per month fee for residential garbage collection and replacing it with another tax hike. That discussion revealed a sharp divide between those in favor and those opposed.

By law, the council cannot make official decisions on the budget until after Monday night’s public hearing and before a proposed property-tax rate has been publicly advertised for 10 days.

However, after Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson made the case for a park-maintenance tax, council members’ only comments were compliments on his presentation and affirmations of support.

“I certainly support the half cent, support this proposal,” said Councilman Eugene Brown.

Councilman Steve Schewel, who had previously advocated a full cent tax for expanding the park system as well as maintenance and repair, also voiced approval for the smaller increase.

“There are things we need to add,” Schewel said. “But my colleagues have convinced me this is the way to start.”

Schewel and Brown, though, were on opposite sides when it came to the solid-waste fee.

Schewel said it falls unfairly on the poor, and Brown pointed out that the council imposed the fee a year ago to avoid raising fares on DATA buses, whose riders are overwhelmingly low-income people.

City Manager Tom Bonfield’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year already included a property-tax rise of $1.29 per $100 of property valuation, to pay for debt service on voter-approved bonds and for continuing the salaries of police officers and firefighters hired with now-expired federal stimulus money.

The half-cent addition would raise the city rate from the current 56.75 cents per $100 valuation to 58.54 cents. That would add $35.80 to the bill for a house and lot valued at $200,000.

Replacing the $1.80 monthly solid-waste fee would require another 0.579-cent rise in the tax rate, according to the city budget office.

Council members had previously discussed the parks tax, originally suggested as a “penny-for-parks,” at length, and had seen evidence of the parks’ need for making up long-postponed maintenance.

Projections show the half-cent tax would bring in an additional $1.2 million in its first year, providing for the parks and general-services departments to hire six new employees each, with full-time assignments for inspecting, repairing, cleaning, neatening and landscaping the city’s parks and greenways.

Swapping the garbage fee for a tax increase had not been much discussed, but several council members said during winter budget retreats that they wanted to revisit their 2013 decision.

“The fee impacts me the same as it impacts someone with much less income,” said Councilman Don Moffitt, who supports the swap along with Schewel and Councilwoman Diane Catotti.

Mayor Bill Bell, though, said the fee is paid only by those who use the service, whereas a tax would be paid by residents of apartment complexes and businesses whose solid waste is handled by private firms.

“All the other cities we have in this area are charging a solid-waste fee. Even Cary,” said Bell.

Schewel, by a rough calculation, said anyone who owns a property valued at less than $379,000 would be better off paying the tax, because property taxes are income-tax deductible and fees for service are not.

“This is really a philosophical sense of where we are,” said Catotti.

“This whole discussion should be more about practicality than ideology,” said Brown.

First-term Councilman Eddie Davis, in his first city-budget process, made no comment.

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