Augusta Commission members took steps to level a longstanding inequity in the price of garbage pickup Tuesday, although the change will affect lower-income urban homeowners more than others.
They also sent Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson back to rewrite a controversial policy to charge for garbage service at vacant lots but took no action on his proposal to reinstitute curbside tire pickup.
The garbage fee inequity dates to consolidation, when only property owners inside the old city limits paid the city, via a portion of their property taxes, for curbside trash pickup. When curbside pickup was later mandated for suburban residents, homeowners there were charged a flat fee instead of a property tax assessment.
Until now, suburban residents have paid a $310.50 annual fee for the service, while owners in the old city limits paid a $115.50 fee plus a millage assessment – known as the “urban services district” millage – which varies based on property values.
The inconsistency within the consolidated government’s boundaries prompted suburban residents to cry foul over the higher fee, while wealthy urban residents complained about the size of their services assessment.
Commissioners had previously approved the “concept” of changing to an all-fee-based system countywide, but none appeared aware the increased urban fee of $310.50 would appear on estimated tax notices mailed to all property owners last month, without any commensurate adjustment in the urban services millage rate.
Finance Director Donna Williams presented her recommendation Tuesday for leveling out the charges using a 2.787-mill reduction in the urban services millage, which was 7.987 mills last year.
The notices are required to show last year’s millage, making it impossible to show any planned reduction, she said.
The reduction, which commissioners will have to approve when they set the millage rate later this summer, isn’t a reduction for everyone. According to Williams’ chart, owners of homes subject to a homestead exemption won’t see a net decrease in the amount they pay for garbage and recycling unless their homes are valued at more than $150,000, at the point where the 2.787 assessment is greater than the $195 difference in fee.
A homesteaded $35,000 house will actually see a $169.92 increase on the city portion of their annual tax bill, a $50,000 home will see a $153.20 increase and a $100,000 home will increase by $97.46, despite the millage reduction, according to Williams’ data.
Commissioners have worked on the issue for years, with Wayne Guilfoyle leading a subcommittee last year and Bill Lockett serving on another before that.
They voted 8-0 Tuesday to approve the change, with Commissioners Bill Fennoy and Donnie Smith absent.
“This is a great start, probably the fairest and equitable way for every taxpayer in Richmond County,” Guilfoyle said.
A vacant lot charge similarly drew widespread ire when it appeared without warning on the estimated tax notices.
Lucien Williams, one of three property owners to speak out about unfairness in the trash collection system Tuesday, said the new vacant lot garbage assessment will cost him an extra $4,600 each year for a service he doesn’t expect to receive.
“I have no debris” on the lots, Williams said. “All we do is cut the grass.”
Johnson said estimated tax notices that went out last month had inadvertently assessed every parcel of greenspace, industrial, commercial and otherwise open property as a vacant lot subject to the new $155.25 charge, which he believes will encourage property owners to clean their lots.
“We need to just drop this, opt out of this altogether,” Commissioner Marion Williams said.
Guilfoyle, admitting to owning a couple of lots himself, said “we’re trying to charge for a service that will never be rendered.”
Lockett chastised Johnson for not mentioning the impact of the new charge when he presented details from the lengthy contract last year.
“We don’t always read every sentence in the contract,” Lockett said. “In the future, make sure those things are highlighted.”
Johnson said he had presented information about charging owners for garbage pickup on vacant lots in 2010.
“At some point, we did talk about it,” he said, although the fee amounts were set in a separate agenda item last year.