Can of worms

An Augusta Commission subcommittee is looking to give owners of unoccupied, boarded-up houses a break on garbage fees, but it might be tricky given the city's dual method of charging for the service.

The working plan involves a 50 percent discount on the $287 per year fee charged to suburban properties and waiving the $92 per year fee charged to those within the pre-consolidation Augusta city limits, whose owners would still pay something toward trash pickup out of the urban district millage add-on, according to Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson.

But under the current system, most urban customers pay less than half for trash service than what suburban customers pay. And even with the varying discounts being proposed, a boarded-up home in the suburbs would still pay more for the service than a house of equal value in the old city.

"At this point, it's still a concept that needs some evaluation," Mr. Johnson said.

Commissioner Joe Bowles said if the proposal moves forward, he'll fight it.

"It's not apples to apples," he said. "It's still isn't 50 percent here and 50 percent there."

Complaints from two owners of vacant homes about being charged for a service they don't use prompted Augusta Commissioner Jimmy Smith, chairman of the Engineering Services committee, to form a subcommittee last week to look into amending city code.

Currently, if a house has water or electricity hooked up, the owner gets charged for garbage pickup on their tax bill, regardless of whether a bin is being filled and regardless of whether a bin is even present.

Last week Barbara Coping, who owns a house on Cornell Drive off Olive Road, asked commissioners to waive her 2008 garbage fees. The house's windows and doors are boarded, it has been empty since 2004, there's no can outside, yet she's being charged $287 per year. She said she owes $324.31 for 2008, including interest and penalties.

In April, Rhodia Bradley made a similar complaint about her home on Second Avenue, also off Olive Road.

Both homes are outside the old city limits.

In each case, Mr. Johnson told the Engineering Services committee that the houses had electricity running, so under city ordinance, his hands were tied. Ms. Coping said she has power hooked up so she can work on the house and get it ready to be rented. Ms. Bradley said she needs power to keep her security system on.

Commissioner and Engineering Services committee member J.R. Hatney pushed for waivers for both women, saying it's not fair to charge people for something they don't use. He suggested homes without water or sewer service be exempted from the fee, but Mr. Johnson said that won't work because some customers in rural areas use wells and septic tanks.

The subcommittee -- comprised of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Smith, Commissioner Corey Johnson, City Administrator Fred Russell and staff attorney Andrew MacKenzie -- met for the first time Tuesday. A concept floated was to cut the fee in half for houses that have "mothball" permits through the city's License and Inspection Department, meaning they're unoccupied and have been properly sealed and secured, Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson said he doesn't want to waive the fee completely because vacant homes still generate lawn clippings and bulk waste such as discarded furniture, which gets picked up if left by the curb.

But reducing charges fairly won't be easy, and the reasons date back to the 1996 city-county consolidation.

Initially, residents in the old county hired private trash haulers, and those within the old city limits paid for city service through the Urban Services tax rate, a millage add-on justified by such now-obsolete factors as better police and fire protection, street lights and payments on city debts that have since been paid off.

When the Augusta Commission voted to expand garbage service into the old county in 2001, effectively making city trash service compulsory for all Augusta homeowners, a flat fee of $195 per year was added for suburban properties. The service couldn't be factored into the millage for suburban homes because, to cover the cost of citywide service, the millage would have had to surpass the tax cap.

Then in 2005, with the trash service fund in the hole by $4 million, the city added an $81 per year fee to urban residents and raised the suburban fee to $276. The fees have since been raised to $92 and $287.

Because property taxes vary by assessed home values, so do trash bills when urban garbage fees come out of millage. In 2008, the millage levied on urban property owners was 36.59. For suburban owners, it was 30.15.

On the whole, residents in the old city limits pay far less for garbage service than suburban residents. An analysis by The Augusta Chronicle in 2007 found that more than 90 percent of urban property owners pay less for trash pickup than their suburban counterparts, and that an urban homeowner's property would have to be valued at at least $308,000 to be paying the equivalent trash fee of what every suburban homeowner pays.

On the same token, even with the respective trash fee discounts at 100 and 50 percent, and even with urban taxpayers still contributing to the garbage service through millage, owners of boarded-up homes in the suburbs would still pay more than their counterparts in the urban district.

Mr. Smith said the committee will meet a second time after Mr. Russell and Mr. MacKenzie look into the legal implications of fee waivers.

Mr. Bowles said he not only dislikes the concept of mothballed homes creating unequal savings for various property owners, he doesn't like the city charging unequal rates for trash service in the first place.

"Sooner or later, we're gonna' get sued," he said. "My solution is to allow people to have private haulers. It's a lot cheaper."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

GARBAGE FEE, DISCOUNT INEQUITIES

An Augusta Commission subcommittee is considering discounts on garbage fees for owners of empty, boarded-up homes. But giving discounts fairly will be tough because trash fees aren't levied equitably in the first place.

HOW IT WORKS

Trash charge for properties within the old, pre-consolidation Augusta city limits:

- $92 per year fee

- An added Urban Services tax rate, charged for services including garbage pickup. In 2008, the millage was 30.15 for old county properties and 36.59 for old city properties

Trash charge for properties in the old Richmond County:

- $287 per year fee

PROPOSAL ON THE TABLE

If homeowner has a "mothball" permit from the License and Inspection Department, reduce the trash fee by half -- to $143.50 -- if it's a suburban property, and by 100 percent if it's an urban property.

A HYPOTHETICAL APPLICATION

Take a mothballed house valued at $20,000, with a 40 percent taxable value of $8,000, putting it in the urban district in one scenario, and in the suburbs in another scenario, then calculating garbage fee savings under the subcommittee's proposal. (For clarity, streetlight fees are not factored in.)

Urban

- $8,000 x .03659 (millage) = $292.72

- Add a $92 garbage fee for a tax bill of $384.72

- Since it has a mothball permit, drop the $92 fee to get back to $292.72

- Discounted tax bill = $292.72

Suburban

- $8,000 x .03015 (millage) = $241.20

- Add a $287 per year garbage fee for a tax bill of $528.20

- With a mothball permit, cut the garbage fee in half, to $143.50, to get down to $384.70

- Discounted tax bill = $384.70

BOTTOM LINE: The property in the suburbs pays more for trash fees, even with a mothball discount.