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Divided BMA approves $8 garbage fee in 4-3 vote

Rick Wagner • Jun 21, 2016 at 11:02 PM

KINGSPORT — City residents who get curbside garbage pickup this month at no added charge will have an $8 sanitation fee on their water/sewer bills starting next month.

That was the decision of a Board of Mayor and Aldermen divided 4-3 Tuesday night, although after the vote members talked about moving forward.

Despite a reduction in the proposed garbage fee from $12.75 a month to $8, the BMA remained split on the issue, as it has been for a month, during the second and final reading and vote on the matter. Voting for the fee were Mayor John Clark and Aldermen Darrell Duncan, Michele Mitchell and Tom Parham. Voting against were Vice Mayor Mike McIntire, Colette George and Tommy Olterman. 

“We have friendships with each other that are stronger than an opinion,” Mitchell said after the vote. Olterman before the vote said it would have some “bad implications” but afterward said: “All of us have our hearts in the right place. ... Now let’s move forward.”

The initially proposed garbage fee of $12.75 a month and a 3-cent reduction in the city property tax rate gave way to a compromise on the eve of Tuesday’s vote.

“We all want what is best for Kingsport,” George said. “I’t just a question of how we fund it.”

During Monday’s work session, the board was presented with a compromise for an $8 monthly garbage fee and no property tax reduction. In addition, those with low incomes who are older than 65 and/or disabled and eligible for property tax relief will continue to get free garbage pickup. The initial proposal included discussion of a reduced fee for that group.

Another group that won’t be affected by the fee are those who live in apartments and other complexes without curbside pickup. City Manager Jeff Fleming said those in apartments and other living arrangements without curbside service would not be charged the fee, which starts July 1.

“Tonight, I did what I thought was right, but I’ve been wrong before,” McIntire said. “We’ll move forward.”

In the 2016-17 city budget the BMA approved 4-3 Tuesday, $2.4 million is funded through property tax supplanted by the $8 sanitation fee, with $1 million for ONEKingsport Investments ($700,000 in cash and $300,000 debt service) and $1.4 million for annual maintenance/operating expenses.

“I think we still need to be responsible with what we do with our money,” Duncan said.

Six people made public comments. Two, Mary McNabb and ONEKingsport summit participant John Perdue, spoke in favor of the fee. The other four, Tim Sanders, Courtland Dugan Grey, Bond Porter and Carlton Purvis, spoke against it.

ONEKingsport is a plan, staunchly supported by Clark, to help the city attract residents and businesses and grew out of a recent summit. The mayor said the plan is essential to growing Kingsport, given new annexation law that ends the city’s decades-long practice of annexation by ordinance. Instead, annexation is allowed only by request or referendum. Also, city coffers will be down $700,000 because of the loss of the Hall Income Tax.

Sanders derided the board’s “tax-and-spend” mentality, while Porter said the public distrusts local government and doesn’t understand or believe the ONEKingsport vision because of how he said the federal government  has caused them to lose faith in government. “I’m persuadable on your vision,” Porter said. Purvis claimed that in saying he did not want to stick businesses with an extra tax burden, Clark was saying he wanted to saddle residents with it. 

The initial plan would have given businesses and industries an overall break but would have cost more out of pocket for most residents. The new plan is tax neutral for business and industry but adds  a new fee to residential garbage customers.

“Unfortunately, it’s hard to gain acceptance by everyone in a city of 53,000,” Clark said after the vote, maintaining that the majority of residents support ONEKingsport and the garbage fee. He pledged to start Wednesday promoting ONEKingsport and to facilitate a planned public relations campaign to help make people aware they are eligible for property tax assistance from the state and, thus, a waived garbage fee.

Garbage pickup in the Model City has been covered by property tax and other revenues. The $8 fee does not cover the complete cost of garbage collection, so it does not make the operation a true self-supporting or enterprise fund, but it is a step in that direction.

The garbage fee marks the second fee added to the water/sewer bills in the city. The first was the stormwater maintenance fee, which supports an enterprise fund. The federal government does not require a stormwater enterprise fund but does require cities of more than 10,000 residents to form a stormwater utility to handle pollution and flooding issues from runoff water. Kingsport’s stormwater fee averages about $3.50 for most residential homeowners but more for business and commercial property owners. On the other hand, the garbage fee does not affect businesses and industry because they pay for their own commercial garbage pickup.

The garbage pickup revenue and revenues from a new franchise fee charged to AEP will pay for 11 new positions in the 2016-17 budget to support the ONEKingsport initiative, not 22 positions as originally planned. “We don’t have a big bunch of money and we just have enough to get started,” Parham said.

AEP is expected to pass along the franchise fee in a rate increase officials have said would cost the average residential electric customer 5 percent more or about $70 a year. The new garbage fee will cost $96 a year. In addition, city leaders have discussed for the past few years a natural gas fee that would mean an increase in Atmos bills for Kingsport residents, businesses and industries that use natural gas.

The natural gas fee was not discussed by the board Tuesday. 

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