Durham council may swap out trash fee for tax

Mar. 20, 2014 @ 08:06 PM

Four City Council members have signaled that they may repeal the $1.80-a-month fee their government started charging homeowners last summer for trash collection.

The move likely will mean an offsetting property tax increase, as the fee was put in place to raise money for the Solid Waste Management Department’s truck purchases and lower the department’s reliance on city tax revenue.

But the fee drew criticism from the start, most notably from one of the city’s major political groups, as a regressive levy that hits lower- and middle-income residents harder than others.

In making the change, “you are replacing what some people see as a regressive fee with a less-regressive tax,” said Councilman Eddie Davis, part of the majority that on Thursday said it wants to consider the move.

Joining him were Councilmen Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt, and Councilwoman Diane Catotti.

Schewel and Catotti fought the imposition of the collection fee last year.

Moffitt is changing his position, having voted for the fee last year mainly to avoid causing a temporary deadlock that would’ve forced ailing then-Councilman Howard Clement to attend a meeting to break it.

Clement at the time was coming to council meetings only to break ties, and, when he did, normally voted the same way as Mayor Bill Bell. The council otherwise operated in 2012 and 2013 as though it had only six members.

The mayor was the fee’s chief proponent, and in passing it was able to count on votes from Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, his closest council ally, and Councilman Eugene Brown.

Bell favored the fee largely for public-relations reasons, fearing comparisons of the city’s property tax rate with those of Wake County communities that rely more heavily on user fees than does Durham to finance governmental operations.

Clement retired after last year’s fall election, Davis taking his seat after a campaign that saw him get an endorsement from the People’s Alliance, the political group that had spearheaded opposition to the levy.

Bell made it clear Thursday that his view of the issue hasn’t changed.

“So that’s another tax increase?” he said after Moffitt proposed including the swap in the fiscal 2014-15 budget-preparation guidelines the council is setting for City Manager Tom Bonfield.

“If you consider our fees something residents don’t have to pay,” Moffitt answered.

Administrators in proposing the fee last year noted that it exempted businesses and apartments owners from having to pay part of the bill for curbside trash-collection services they don’t use.

But the People’s Alliance objected to the cost-shifting move, and also to the fact that a fixed-price fee by definition would ask owners of less-valuable properties to bear more of the cost of the service.

When initially proposed last year, as a $1.50-a-month levy, the fee was less costly than a revenue-equivalent tax increase to anyone owning a home valued at more than $348,247. An owner’s tax bill varies directly with the value of his or her home.

Moffitt said he’s figuring the fee’s annual revenue is equivalent to about six-tenths of a cent on the city’s property tax rate, and that it generates about $1.4 million a year for Solid Waste Management.

A penny on the city’s tax rate in fiscal 2014-15 likely will raise about $2.4 million, Bonfield and Budget & Management Services Director Bertha Johnson said.

Brown and Cole-McFadden joined Bell Thursday in voting against adding the swap to the budget guidelines.

Bonfield is scheduled to submit his fiscal 2014-15 budget request to the council in May. Binding decisions by the council will follow later that month and in June.