Durham News

June 5, 2014

Durham garbage fee question still undecided

The City Council closed one last meeting on the 2014-15 budget Thursday by affirming their consensus to add a half cent to the property-tax rate for park maintenance, but leaving undecided what to do about the garbage collection fee.

The City Council agreed Thursday to add a half cent to the property-tax rate for park maintenance, but remained undecided about how to pay for garbage collection.

Only four of the seven council members attended Thursday’s budget meeting, and those present left three options to be considered when the budget comes up for a vote June 16:

•  Leave the garbage fee in place;
•  Replace the fee by adding 0.58 cent to the property-tax rate;
•  Cut the fee in half and make up the difference with a tax increase for one year, then eliminate the fee and raise the tax rate again.

“This is just miniscule,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Cora Cole-McFadden. “I know we have to raise taxes but we don’t have to raise them for that.”

City Manager Tom Bonfield has proposed a $376.5 million budget for the coming fiscal year. A projected $140,305,673, or 37 percent, of the revenue comes from property taxes.

The $1.80 monthly garbage fee has been a point of council and public contention since it was proposed and adopted last year. Supporters say a fee is more fair than a tax because it is only charged to those whose garbage is collected by the city. The city does not collect solid waste from businesses, including most apartment complexes.

Opponents say it is regressive, putting an undue burden on the poor who pay the same amount as affluent solid-waste customers. Cole-McFadden, though, argued that paying $1.80 a month is easier on low-income people than coming up with money to pay an extra tax at the end of the year.

“Psychologically, it’s not good to have to deal with a higher tax,” she said. “I understand the thinking of people who are less well off than those of us around the table are.”

Council members Diane Catotti and Steve Schewel , who oppose the fee, were not at the budget meeting, but Mayor Bill Bell said Catotti’s earlier suggestion of a phased transition should be left among the options when the full council votes.

“I wanted to at least have those options for the council to see,” Bell said.

Councilman Eddie Davis said he would not support the phase-in, describing it as a “split the baby in half” solution that would only create “a more politicized issue.”

Tax bills

Bonfield’s proposed budget already included a 1.29-cent increase in the property-tax rate, to cover debt service on voter-approved bonds and salaries for police officers and firefighters previously paid with federal stimulus grants.

With the 0.5-cent increase for parks, the city’s property-tax rate goes from the current 56.75 cents per $100 of assessed property value 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.

The half-cent parks tax is expected to bring in $1.2 million in its first year, providing enough 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.

On other budget questions, the council decided to:

• Leave $200,000 in the budget for the Durham Police Department’s Gang Resistance Education and Training program in public elementary schools, though the city wants the school system to pay that part of the total cost. Bonfield said a task force is being convened with Durham Public Schools to consider how to divide the cost.
• Dip into the city’s fund balance – a cash reserve, the amount of which affects the city’s credit rating – to cover an estimated $129,000 loss due to the state legislature’s immediate restriction on business license fees.
• Give the planning department $20,000 for a consultant to work on the Golden Belt neighborhood’s petition to become a local historic district; the application has been awaiting action since 2010.
• Set aside, but not authorize, $101,000 for a poverty-relief progam requested by the Durham nonprofit MDC, which made the same request of Durham County and Durham Public Schools. Whether or not the money is actually awarded was left to be decided after MDC provides more information on its plans and their anticipated results.
• Take $125,000 from the fund balance to double the appropriation for sidewalk repair, after citizens appealed for more sidewalk funding during a public budget hearing last week; “They made a compelling case,” Bell said.

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