Cities raising fees in search for revenue

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ATHENS -- Even if their taxes don't go up, most Athens-Clarke and Oconee County residents will be paying the government more money in 2010.

Whether they're planning an addition on their houses, running a business, parking downtown, taking the bus or simply watering their lawns, the fees for many services in both counties will rise when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Officials said they are raising many fees because they've stayed the same for years. But charging more to people who use a specific service also keeps the burden off homeowners and brings in money at a time when tax collections are down.

"It simply was time to review these fees," Athens-Clarke Manager Alan Reddish said. "It certainly will help generate some additional revenue in times of recession, which is important."

Nearly half the money Athens-Clarke County takes in is charges for services. Some of those services, like water, sewer and garbage pickup, are funded entirely through fees. Others, like Athens-Ben Epps Airport, parks, building inspections and the Classic Center, partially fund themselves.

Oconee County, a suburban and rural community with fewer services than Athens-Clarke County, relies more heavily on taxes. But Oconee government leaders also are looking to raise fees to help make up a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall created by the recession and construction slump.

Oconee officials have proposed a 30 percent hike in the base rate for water after relying on 6 percent to 7 percent annual growth for a decade to keep up with rising costs, Finance Director Jeff Benko said.

"That's stopped," he said. "Now it's finally catching up to us. We can't afford it any longer."

Benko said he expects Oconee County commissioners to reduce the size of the water-rate increase. They also asked to cut another half-million dollars from the county's $21 million operating budget, and Benko said he may pitch other fee hikes to help make up the difference.

"There may be some additional fees that may be proposed as a result of the board's request," Commission Chairman Melvin Davis said.

Besides the water rate hike, Davis' proposed budget calls for residents to pay more if they submit plans for some new commercial buildings, apply for a building permit or move a mobile home. Officials also might revisit fees for parks and recreation, Benko said.

A 13 percent to 16 percent increase in the cost of water and sewer service that the Athens-Clarke Commission approved May 6 goes into effect for Clarke County residents July 1. So will higher downtown parking rates and fines that were approved in March and a bus fare hike from $1.25 to $1.50 for adults if the commission signs off on it Tuesday.

Athens-Clarke County's proposed 2010 budget also calls for raising fees levied on businesses based on the number of employees, on rezoning applications and on other planning department functions, hiking the cost of a license to sell alcoholic beverages and raising the cost of a police department accident report from $1 to $3.

Those fees will not bring in much money - $80,000 more for the accident reports, for example - but Reddish said some of them should go up because they have not been raised in years and have fallen behind the cost to deliver the service. In the future, officials will re-examine fees more regularly, he said.

Officials raised other fees without an eye to filling the coffers. Higher water rates will allow the Athens-Clarke Public Utilities Department to pay off construction bonds even though sales declined during the recent drought. Raising downtown parking rates was intended to encourage visitors to park in decks and speed up customer turnover at retail stores.

Athens-Clarke Commissioner Doug Lowry, though, said officials should be as reluctant to raise fees as taxes during a recession.

"It's the worst of times to start jacking up these fees," he said.

Lowry did not object to higher fees during budget hearings earlier this month, nor did other commissioners when Reddish told them that the county was charging for just about everything it could legally charge for in order to make ends meet.

"We use virtually every resource for revenue available to us that the law allows," Reddish said at a May 14 meeting.

Commissioner Ed Robinson suggested new or higher fees for adult entertainment establishments, tobacco retailers, pet owners and fire inspections, but Finance Director John Culpepper said many of those ideas are illegal under state law.

Besides higher fees, the budget the Athens-Clarke Commission is scheduled to approve Tuesday includes a quarter-mill property tax increase, or $12.50 on a $150,000 home, and $5 million in cuts.

The Oconee County Commission also is scheduled to approve its budget Tuesday, but a vote probably will be delayed as commissioners discuss more cuts, Benko said. Oconee is likely to cut 12 percent or 13 percent from the overall budget.

INCOME SOURCES

The Athens-Clarke County government expects to make almost half of its projected $175 million total revenue in the fiscal year beginning July 1 from charging for services like water, sewer, trash pickup, downtown parking fees and bus fares. Oconee County relies more heavily on property taxes, and school districts have few options other than state grants and local property taxes.

Athens-Clarke County: $175 million

Fees for services: 45 percent

Property taxes: 26 percent

Sales taxes: 11 percent

Other: 18 percent

Oconee County: $30 million

Property taxes: 41 percent

Water fees: 21 percent

Sales taxes: 17 percent

Other: 21 percent

Clarke County School District: $122 million

Property taxes: 53 percent

State: 40 percent

Other: 6 percent


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