Durham News

Council warms to tax for parks

Property owners in Durham can expect to pay higher taxes next year. The question is, just how much.

In February, city Budget Director Bertha Johnson projected an increase of 1.29 cents per $100 valuation, raising the rate from the current 56.75 cents to 58.04: or, adding $19.35 to the bill for a $150,000 house and lot.

But at a six-hour retreat on the 2014-15 city budget last week, City Council members warmed to an added tax, from 0.25 to 1 cent per $100, dedicated to park maintenance and repair; and some council members raised the prospect of raising the tax rate to replace the $1.80 monthly household garbage-pickup fee the city imposed in 2013.

Council members learned that the city’s garbage disposal is going to need more money, too, but not right away.

The 1.29-cent increase consists of 0.73 cent for debt service on bonds that voters approved several years ago, and 0.56 cent to pay police officers and firefighters previously covered by federal stimulus grants that expire at the end of June.

Facing rising budget shortfalls for several years in the future, Johnson’s projections did not provide for any new city services or initiatives, and the Parks and Recreation Department’s suggestion of a dedicated one-cent tax increase was not factored in.

Parks again

While Councilman Steve Schewel embraced the “penny for parks” right away, his colleagues were not so enthusiastic. But at the budget retreat, Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson and parks personnel provided extra information that seemed to sway council members’ opinion. Among those items:

•  A penny on the tax rate would provide an annual maintenance budget of $3.7 million; the parks department’s current budget is $1.4 million.

•  Replacement cost for the city’s parks and greenways is an estimated $194.5 million.

•  The parks’ economic contribution to the city, in terms of property value, environmental protection and public pleasure is $239 million (according to a formula devised by the Trust for Public Land).

•  Durham spends $45 per year per resident on its parks, Greensboro spends $72, Raleigh spends $95 and Virginia Beach spends $110.

And according to a just-completed citizens’ opinion survey, trails and recreation ranked just behind street conditions and police as the Durham public’s priorities. After the retreat, Schewel said he thinks citizens would go along with a dedicated tax for parks

“I think there is a lot of support in the community for this,” he said. “There are a lot of facilities that need a lot of work.”

Council members Diane Catotti and Don Moffitt said they want to reconsider the residential solid-waste fee, which the council approved to pay for keeping up and expanding the city’s garbage-truck fleet. Approval came over opponents’ claims the fee was regressive, imposing a disproportionate burden on low-income residents, and that the city should raise taxes instead.

The rationale for the fee, though, is that a tax would fall on businesses and residents in apartment or condominium complexes whose garbage is collected by private firms, and would get no service for their tax money.

“It’s not quite the wash everybody thinks it is,” Bonfield said after the retreat.

The household garbage fee figured in another matter the council had to consider: rising annual shortfalls the city budget for dealing with solid waste: from $54,154 in the current fiscal year to $2.3 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019.

Bonfield said next year’s projected $101,486 shortfall can probably be covered without affecting the tax rate. He wanted the funding gaps brought up now, though, to get council members’ reaction.

“This would be a good time to understand the will of the council,” said Ferguson, who offered four options for dealing with the shortfalls.

“Nothing that’s going to sound too good,” he said. The options were:

•  Paying more solid-waste costs out of the city’s general-operations fund, through a property-tax increase or shifting money away from other sections of the budget

•  Raising tipping fees at the city transfer station and yard-waste facility along with the $60 annual fee for residential yard-trash pickup and the $18 annual fee for renting yard-waste carts

•  Collecting waste less often, and other service reductions

•  Raising the fee for picking up residential garbage

“"We are going to be relying on some combination of those,” Ferguson said. “If there were something easy in there, we would certainly bring that before you.”