Candidates differ on monthly garbage fee

Oct. 16, 2013 @ 05:38 PM

June’s City Council decision to begin charging homeowners $1.80 a month for trash collection is shaping up as one of the issues that divides candidates for mayor and two council ward seats.
Speaking during a forum this week, Mayor Bill Bell and Ward 3 incumbent Don Moffitt defended the council’s decision to impose the fee to raise money the Solid Waste Management Department needs to buy new trucks.
“We were trying to close a budget hole, and had different tools to use,” Moffitt said, adding that an across-the-board property tax increase “didn’t seem particularly fair either” when it’s homeowners who benefit most directly from roll-out curbside garbage collection.
Ward 2 candidate Omar Beasley also supported the fee, saying it ensured “the entire citizenry of Durham doesn’t have to suffer because of the shortfall in the budget.”
But Ward 2 candidate Eddie Davis and Ward 3 candidate Pam Karriker disagreed with the council’s approach.
Davis acknowledged the council was eager to hold the line on both the property tax rate and on bus fares as it set the fiscal 2013-14 budget, and thus was on the hunt for another way to raise the $1.2 million Solid Waste Management Director Donald Long had asked for.
But “we would be better off without user fees, particularly user fees that would be regressive” and extract proportionately more from families lower down the income scale, he said.
Karriker agreed.
“There are definitely services the city offers where fees make perfect sense and should be utilized, but most people consider trash [collection] a core service of municipal government” normally funded by taxes, she said.
Mayoral challenger Sylvester Williams echoed the leading council opponent of the fee, Councilman Steve Schewel, in saying the decision in June to go with a fee was primarily a rhetorical move.
“Can we be honest with our citizens?” Williams said. “A user fee is a tax.”
The candidates’ comments came during a Tuesday evening forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Inter-Neighborhood Council.
It was the candidates’ one and only joint appearance before voting in this fall’s general election begins. Early voting starts today at 9 a.m. at the county Board of Elections office at 706. W. Corporation St.
A schedule and sample ballot are available from the board at http://bit.ly/19QV4Tb. Voters throughout the city can vote for each of the council’s ward seats; the candidates need only live in the ward they hope to represent.
Incumbent Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden is running unopposed in Ward 1.
The election itself concludes with citywide precinct voting on Nov. 5.
Imposition of the garbage-collection fee was most contentious of the issues the council dealt with this spring as it settled the city’s fiscal 2013-14 budget. Schewel and Councilwoman Diane Catotti opposed the levy.
So did the People’s Alliance, one of Durham’s big-three political groups.
Tuesday’s lineup of opinion was noteworthy because the People’s Alliance, despite its role in spring’s budget debate, endorsed Bell, Davis and Moffitt for the contested seats in this year’s election.
Alliance spokesman Milo Pyne acknowledged the difference in opinion between the group and some of its endorsed candidates.
He also noted that potentially regressive tax and fee proposals have divided its members in the past, particularly in 2008 when the group backed a proposed countywide sales-tax surcharge on restaurant meals that voters eventually rejected.
“Our principle would be to try to affect the most vulnerable people the least,” Pyne said, adding that the council took “some of the hit off the least vulnerable” by holding the line on bus fares.