Garbage fees increased in pre-consolidation city limits

Included on estimated annual tax bills mailed to Augusta property owners May 9 was another surprise affecting at least 13,000 households inside the pre-consolidation city limits.

On the notices was a fee increase – raising the base rate for garbage and recycling pickup in the old city limits from $115.50 to $310.50 – but no commensurate decrease in the millage-based portion of urban garbage bills, an amount that varies based on property values.

“That really makes it unconstitutional,” said former Au­gus­ta Commission member Joe Bowles, a longtime critic of Augusta’s unbalanced tax and fee system, which charges residents in the old city limits differently from those in the suburbs for the same set of services, despite consolidation in 1996.

Barry Speth, a single retiree living downtown on a fixed income, was puzzling over why his estimated tax bill had risen since last year when he noticed the garbage fee increase, which follows last year’s shift from twice-weekly to weekly collection.

“Some days I don’t even have enough garbage for them to pick up,” Speth said. “Yet I’m getting this kind of bill?”

Finance Director Donna Wil­­liams said the notices are merely estimates based on last year’s millage and this year’s fees as required by Georgia law.

The commission could still adjust the “urban services” tax rate to account for the fee increases before tax bills go out this fall, or make other adjustments, she said.

Complicating the issue, which has been studied by a handful of commission committees over the years, is the fact that the urban services millage is charged against every property whether it uses city garbage service or not and includes allocations for fire protection and streetlights in the old city limits that would likely need a replacement revenue stream if the tax were eliminated.

Williams said she is ready to provide the amount of an urban services millage reduction required to cover the $195 increase in fees when the commission discusses the item at its regular 2 p.m. meeting today.

Environmental Services Director Mark John­son, who has the fee increase and two other garbage-related requests on today’s agenda, won’t be at the meeting but said his deputy, Lori Videtto, and Williams can handle the discussion.

“We should be charging similarly for similar-type service,” Johnson said, adding that there’s no way to compensate owners who have paid too much or too little – in the case of those whose homes are worth very little, or are exempt from taxes because of age or status – in a way likely to satisfy everyone.

Commissioner Bill Lockett said he hoped to refer the item to a future committee meeting because Johnson will be out.

The Engineering Services committee declined to discuss the item last week, referring it and the two other garbage items to the full commission without recommendation today so Johnson wouldn’t have to repeat himself.

“There are so many cloudy things that we’ve done with this government,” Lockett said.

Another cause of consternation among owners of multiple properties in Augusta is a new item included on notices – a $155.25 fee for garbage and recycling on vacant lots.

Last week, Lockett proposed that the commission consider implementing an exemption for properties with no dwelling on them, with an estimated impact on proposed revenue of $1.3 million.

A final garbage item going before the commission today would reinstitute curbside tire pickup on a monthly basis.

Despite a decade or more of weekly curbside collection of two tires per household, Augusta still has a scrap tire problem, and much of the blame likely rests on businesses that illegally dump or thieves who strip metal from tires to recycle but leave the tires behind, Johnson said.

As a result, new monthly “tire events” aren’t fully disposing of Augusta’s scrap tires. Johnson has suggested hiring a firm to collect tires at the curb monthly.

The city recycles the tires, paying either Ridge Recycling or Amaresco to haul them away at $75 to $90 a ton.

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