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Trash talk: Kingsport BMA set for vote on reworked garbage fee plan

J. H. Osborne • Jun 21, 2016 at 8:29 AM

KINGSPORT — If you live in Kingsport, you’re probably about to have a new monthly fee to pay for what has traditionally been paid for by your property taxes.

The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen remains split 4-3 in favor of establishing the Model City’s first ever “garbage fee.” The move is linked to the city’s effort to fund community projects recommended by the One Kingsport effort.

A final vote on the issue is scheduled for Tuesday when the BMA meets in regular session.

The group took its first vote on the issue two weeks ago. At that time the proposal was for a $12.75 monthly garbage fee for all city households — accompanied by a 3-cent reduction in the city’s property tax rate.

At a work session Monday afternoon, Mayor John Clark said he and other members of the BMA had since been given plenty of feed back through telephone calls, in-person comments and letters to the editor printed in the Kingsport Times-News.

That feedback, Clark said, resulted in development of a proposed “compromise plan” he said had been looked at by BMA members for the past week.

It was unveiled at the work session. It eliminates the tax cut. The city’s tax rate will stay the same as this year. It still includes a garbage fee. But instead of an estimated $12.75 per month, it will be $8 per month. And while the earlier proposal eventually had included a suggested reduced monthly fee for those enrolled in the state’s property tax rebate program for homeowners over 65 below a certain income level, the disabled and disabled veterans, this compromise would eliminate the fee for those homeowners.

City Manager Jeff Fleming said there are currently about 1,000 homeowners in the city who are enrolled in that program, but many more likely qualify and don’t know. Fleming said the city would need to launch an awareness campaign to help those who qualify understand the program and how to enroll because they would have to be enrolled in order to get the new garbage fee waived.

Clark said investing in One Kingsport projects is Kingsport’s only hope for creating growth in its tax base and population, by attracting development and the amenities that will make newcomers want to move here.

“We’re already a commuter town,” Clark said. “We’re just trying to put the brakes on it.”

Without One Kingsport’s initiatives, Clark said, Kingsport will not grow and the BMA will in the coming years be forced to either raise the city’s property tax or cut services — services like police officers, firefighters and teachers.

Clark said 53,000 live in the city, while another 20,000 commute to and from homes elsewhere for their jobs here.

Alderman Tommy Olterman said he does not agree with Clark’s “doom and gloom” outlook for the city. Olterman said he has friends investing now in new businesses downtown.

Clark said he hoped they had enough customers to survive, noting that most new businesses, in general, fail.

Clark said One Kingsport’s plan to move the city forward continues to have his full confidence. He said it was developed by leaders in the community who volunteered their time for several months. It is supported, he said he believes, by a majority of residents and “the citizens who have a passion for the future of our city.”

Olterman said throwing a garbage fee into the mix when trying to gain public support for One Kingsport’s vision did the opposite, instead causing what he described as having “divided our community more than any other issue” he can recall.

“There was no reason for it,” Olterman said. “We could have worked through it and gotten there in a different way.”

Some of the alderman who are against the garbage fee component of the plan, as well as some members of the public who are against the new fee, said they would more easily embrace a tax increase to fund One Kingsport projects. A property tax increase would be more equitable, they said. It would also include businesses. Businesses do not receive garbage pickup from the city; they pay private companies for the service.

Clark said he’d heard from leading businesses in the city and they do not want a tax increase.

“I am not going to vote for that because I’m not going to stick it to our businesses,” Clark said.

A man in the audience, who had spoken against the garbage fee earlier, called out and asked Clark if he meant Eastman Chemical Co.,  “where your wife is a (vice president)?”

Multiple members of the public spoke against the garbage fee, no matter the amount. Some said it is just a tax by another name and they can’t afford to pay it — even at $8 a month it will mean a choice between groceries or medicine and paying the water bill. The fee will be added to resident’s water bills.

Others, who live in areas annexed by the city not long ago, said one so-called selling point of being taken in by the city was the promise of free garbage pickup. County residents pay private companies for garbage pickup.

By far, most audience members on Monday were opposed to the garbage fee. Some wore or waved small “No Garbage Tax” signs throughout the meeting.

But a few said they were there to support the One Kingsport plans for improving the city in the next five years.

Matt Carter, 21, of the Rock Springs area, said he and other young people leave the area as soon as they can because the city lacks amenities they want — and One Kingsport’s vision would help reverse that trend.

Carter said the city needs to be thinking about the next generation and who will be living here in 30 years.

Carter said if the garbage fee brought about the better quality of life he and others his age are seeking in a place to raise a family, it would pay for itself from his perspective with no problem.

He’d save more than the monthly garbage fee, Carter said, by not having to drive to Johnson City whenever he wanted to do something.

Bond Porter apologized for his attire when he rose to speak during public comment, explaining he’d come straight from Cattails golf course at MeadowView. Porter said he can remembers years ago when MeadowView was just a proposal, and he opposed an increase in the sales tax to help fund it.

“I was wrong,” Porter said.

Porter said as a landlord he earns his living through rental properties. The garbage fee, he said, would be a struggle for his tenants. But they already pay for all the other services they receive such as water, electricity, telephone and cable. The tax reduction, he said, would have been nice for him. A tax increase, he said, would be passed on to his tenants.

Developer Danny Karst said no one was talking about all the good things the city does for people on limited incomes. Karst said he appreciates those things because he has a mentally challenged son who benefits from them. Karst said he wants his son to have as independent a life as possible and he does not simply give him things. His son lives on his own, Karst said, and will have to pay the garbage fee. But, Karst said, the city offers other programs and services that help his son. Karst said he won’t buy the son a computer because the son hasn’t been able to save up the money. So he goes to the Kingsport Public Library to use the computers there. And when he joined the YMCA he got a discounted membership rate.

A man in the audience who had spoken against the garbage fee interrupted Karst several times. Karst told him to be quiet because he’d been quiet when it was the man’s turn to speak. When Karst was finished the man called out, “Why won’t you help your son? Are you asking us to buy him a computer? You’ve got a computer right in your hand. I just don’t understand.”

Clark called the man down.

While Carter described the city’s challenge as keeping young people here once they finish school, Alderman Tom Parham said attracting newcomers is the real issue.

“It’s not that we’re losing people,” Parham said. “It’s that we’re not gaining people.”

Clark said multiple times during the discussion that changes in state law regarding annexation are at the bottom of the city’s dilemma.

Without annexation by ordinance as a planning tool, Clark said, Kingsport’s only hope of maintaining growth is to “invest in our city.”

“On the one hand, we can invest in our city,” Clark said. “Or if we don’t do anything .. what we are going to see is a tax base decline.”

Clark said other cities in the region are keeping themselves attractive to newcomers by doing the sort of things proposed by One Kingsport.

A garbage fee opponent in the audience derided One Kingsport as the result of 100 people “handpicked” by Clark to get together at MeadowView, all wearing “beautiful One Kingsport shirts on the first day.”

Clark said no one was excluded from that event and One Kingsport had included representatives of all segments of the population.

Carter, the young man who spoke of the need to do something to keep him and other young people from leaving, noted most cities across the nation that have attractive amenities have a garbage fee.

Opponents of the new fee pointed out that those fees typically grow, too, over time, including those here in the region.

Vice Mayor Mike McIntire said the compromise was a step in the right direction, but he still could not support the garbage fee.

McIntire said he doesn’t think the board is divided when it comes to supporting the concept of what One Kingsport aims to do. McIntire said the split is primarily over the proposed funding mechanism.

Alderman Colette George said she, too, remains opposed to the garbage fee. George said she loves Kingsport and she wants Kingsport to thrive. George said the whole issue of funding One Kingsport while developing the city’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was handled wrong from the get-go.

Rather than Fleming being told to create a balanced budget and finding a way to fund One Kingsport’s recommendations, George said, a budget should have been developed — and the board should have vetted One Kingsport projects individually and then seen what could be funded and when.

George said she supports One Kingsport recommendations but doesn’t support paying for them through a new garbage fee that will be paid by many people for whom it will be a burden — and for whom the new amenities will not serve.

“The people who benefit from these projects should pay for them,” George said.

At one point as Parham apparently was summarizing his reason for continuing to support the garbage fee, his voice was hard to hear in the audience. A member of the public called out, “We can’t hear you.”

Parham spoke louder just long enough to say he wasn’t talking to them, he was talking to his fellow board members.

Alderman Michele Mitchell and Alderman Darrell Duncan each said they remain in favor of the garbage fee and funding One Kingsport’s recommendations. Both cited the inclusion in those recommendations of a plan to replace all the public housing in the city. Duncan said that plan would mean $50 million worth of building in the city to replace housing projects that in some cases date back to 1940 — and the city’s share of that cost is projected at only $3.5 million.

The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday on the second floor of Kingsport City Hall, 225 W. Center St.

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