Council majority still looking to repeal trash fee

May. 29, 2014 @ 09:18 PM

A debate Thursday that changed no minds left a City Council divided on the point on track toward repealing Durham’s year-old trash-collection fee and replacing it with an offsetting increase in the property tax rate.

The only question appears to be whether council members make the change all at once, in fiscal 2014-15, or whether they phase it in.
An immediate repeal would require a 0.57-cent increase in the city’s property tax rate, to go with the 1.29-cent rate increase City Manager Tom Bonfield requested and a 0.5-cent addition council members favor to improve parks upkeep.
Councilwoman Diane Catotti floated the idea, late in the discussion, of capping the city’s 2014-15 tax rate increase at 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, which would mean the council could get only partway toward repealing the $1.80-a-month trash fee homeowners now pay.
“I suggest trying to do some this year and some next,” Catotti said.
Councilman Eugene Brown opposes repeal of the trash fee, but urged his colleagues and city staffers to consider Catotti’s idea.
The debate otherwise left positions on the fee unchanged. Catotti and Councilmen Eddie Davis, Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel consider the trash fee regressive and want to do away with it. Davis, Moffitt and Schewel seemed inclined to favor an immediate rather than a phased repeal.
Mayor Bill Bell, Brown and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden favor retaining the fee.
Thursday’s discussion highlighted again that while there are equity-based arguments both for and against having a solid-waste fee, the issue is also about public relations.
Bell favors the fee because of the unflattering comparisons some critics of city government make between Durham’s tax rate and those of communities in neighboring Wake County.
Durham currently levies on property owners a tax rate of 58.04 cents per $100 of assessed value, versus for instance Raleigh’s 40.38 cents and Cary’s 35 cents.
But nine of Wake County 12 cities and towns impose separate trash-collection fees on their cities and towns, and not small ones either. Raleigh charges $159.60 a year for trash pickup; Cary charges $180.
Those numbers come from a city of Raleigh analysis that tried to tot up the per-household cost of local government for various communities in the area, counting property taxes, trash fees, water and sewer charges and stormwater-control fees.
It found that for a Raleigh-median house valued at $189,218 that uses 600 cubic feet of water a month, a resident would now pay $1,776 a year to Durham, $1,654 a year to Raleigh and $1,628 a year to Cary.
Those aren’t the highest figures in the area. In Wake County, residents of Zebulon and Wendell pay $2,477 and $2,206 a year, respectively. To the west in Orange County, a Carrboro resident with the same home value and water usage would pay $2,040 a year.
Carrboro’s tax rate is similar to Durham’s, but resident there pay over $300 a year more for water and sewer service. The town is served by a regional utility whose rate structure is limited by a state law designed to keep it from shifting costs away from residents onto UNC Chapel Hill.
Bell clearly regards the tax-rate discrepancies between Durham and Wake County’s communities as a problem.
“You can talk about comparing water and sewer costs or the solid-waste rate, but [people] look at property taxes,” he said. “And any way you look at it, we’re still No. 1.”
He added that the fee is also fair because most businesses and apartment complexes don’t receive city trash pickup.
But Moffitt countered that if equity is the concern, Durham could easily follow the example of Wake’s communities and go for a high-dollar waste fee.
“We can do away with all [tax subsidies of the Solid Waste Management Department] by charging a total fee of $213 a year,” he told Bell. “That will actually get you to the logic you want, that people who use the service pay for the service. That will allow us to decrease our taxes, to have a 5.13 cent tax [rate] decrease.”
But he and Schewel both noted that a fee, being one-size-fits-all, takes proportionately more from residents lower down the value and income scale.
It “impacts me the same as someone with much less wealth, much less income, and that’s my problem with it,” Moffitt said.