It turns out the decision to change the way the city charges residents for garbage service isn't as simple as some Augusta commissioners thought.
Commissioner Bobby Hankerson said he did not believe that the commission eliminated the millage for garbage service in the city's urban district when it decided a month ago to raise the residential garbage fee to $276 a year and to make it countywide.
"I was under the impression we were just addressing the suburban area and not the urban area," Mr. Hankerson said Monday, predicting trouble ahead if the city proceeds with the plan.
The Augusta Chronicle reported Sunday that the change would lower property-tax bills on houses in affluent sections of the city while forcing some property owners in the poorest neighborhoods to pay a pickup fee for the first time. Eliminating the millage for garbage service in the urban district would also give major tax cuts to utilities, businesses and industries in that district.
Many city officials say the city has a legal problem with the current system, which charges commercial-property owners on tax bills for a service it does not provide them. In addition, the solid-waste division is operating at a deficit, which the fee change is supposed to remedy.
Mr. Hankerson insists the new system won't remedy the deficit because many elderly people in the urban district who are exempt from school taxes and have low property values pay no taxes and won't be able to pay $276 a year for garbage service.
"And there's a lot of them out there that are not going to pay it unless we get a collection agency," he said. "And a collection agency can't collect from people that don't really have it. So we're going to be suffering with a larger deficit of unpaid fees. Unpaid fees are going to hit us smack in the face next year."
Mr. Hankerson sees a bigger deficit coming from the loss of tax revenue from business and industry.
"The other problem is we're going to collect less millage from the people with the $400,000 or $200,000 house," he said.
Commissioner Freddie Handy said he has been bombarded with phone calls from people asking why commissioners couldn't leave the system the way it was.
"But we cannot leave it the way it was," he said. "We were in a hole financially. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. We are in that situation."
Mr. Handy and other commissioners say the two taxing systems should have been consolidated with the city-county government consolidation 10 years ago.
"Once we consolidated it should have been separated and it was not done, but it's coming back to haunt us now, 10 years later," he said. "I don't know the answer to the problem, but it needs to be straightened out because people are definitely unhappy with the situation as it stands today."
Commissioner Betty Beard said many residents in her district live on $600 a month and cannot pay $276 more a year.
"Sometimes we forget those people are out there, but they are," she said.
Commissioner Andy Cheek said the change creates a situation in which everybody in the city pays the same fee for the service.
"It's a change for some people, a positive change, for others a negative change," he said. "But the bottom line is when people receive a service across the board, they should pay the same fee across the board, and that's where we're going."
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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