Council repeals trash fee, raises tax rate 2.37 cents

Jun. 16, 2014 @ 10:28 PM

City Council members approved the government’s fiscal 2014-15 budget Monday, along the way voting 4-3 to repeal the $1.80-a-month household trash collection fee that’s been in place for a year.

With the fee revenue gone, the decision meant that the council raised the city’s property tax rate by 2.37 cents per $100 of assessed value. For the owner of a $150,000 house, that translates into a tax bill $35.55 higher than last year’s.
The rate change includes a 1.29-cent increase requested by City Manager Tom Bonfield, to cover rising debt payments and continue paying some police and firefighters whose salaries until now have been covered by grants.
It also includes a 0.5-cent addition that will fund an increase in the level of parks maintenance.
But all the discussion Monday was about the 0.58-cent addition to the rate needed to offset the loss of the trash collection fee, which targets homeowners.
Opponents of the fee argued, as they did last year, that the levy is regressive, hitting low- and middle-income taxpayers harder than the equivalent in property taxes.
“For the owner of a $150,000 home, they pay $21.60 for the solid-waste fee,” Councilman Don Moffitt said. “They pay $9 [in actuality, $8.70] for the taxes required this year to make up the difference.”
“If we’re going to have the kind of economic fairness we want, if we’re going to contribute to ending poverty, let’s be charging so people who have the least pay the least amount of money,” added Councilman Steve Schewel.
The opposition to repeal came from Mayor Bill Bell, Councilman Eugene Brown and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden.
Brown and Bell argued that regardless of the who-pays how-much issue, the city needs revenue to cover the operation of a Solid Waste Management Department it’s labeled as an “enterprise,” meaning it’s accounted for separately as its own business.
They also noted the protests have come mainly from the People’s Alliance, a big-three city political group rooted mainly in well-to-do neighborhoods. The other big-three groups, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham, have been silent on the issue.
“We imposed this fee last year and I have heard nothing – to use an expression that our former colleague Howard Clement used – I have heard nothing from those who live on his side of town about this fee,” Brown said.
Bell also argued that the fee is fair because not every taxpayer in the city receives trash collection services. Most businesses and apartment complexes rely on private-sector collection companies, not the city.
Cole-McFadden argued that the fee is the surest and most convenient way for the city to generate the $1.4 million it would bring in for Solid Waste Management.
“In essence, you can delay a tax bill. You don’t have to pay if you don’t have all the money, [county tax administrators] can work out a [payment] plan with you,” she said. “That $1.80 a month is a sure thing. The needs of the Solid Waste Department go on.”
The council imposed the fee last year with Moffitt on that occasion voting with the mayor, Brown and Cole-McFadden in favor of it. His stance at the time forestalled a showdown vote that would have forced ailing then-Councilman Clement to attend a meeting to break a tie. Most officials presumed Clement would have voted with the mayor.
Councilman Eddie Davis replaced Clement after last fall’s election and joined Moffitt in siding this year with Schewel and Councilwoman Diane Catotti in favoring repeal.
The fiscal 2014-15 tax-rate increase equates to about a 4.2 percent increase in the city’s tax burden. That’s higher than the overall inflation rate, which federal statistics from April show has been running at about 2.0 percent annually.
The council coupled the approval of the fee last year to the approval of a no-tax-increase budget.