Mayor says city garbage fee is DOA

Matthew Lane • Jun 3, 2014 at 4:19 PM

KINGSPORT — A proposed $5 a month garbage collection fee, recommended last month to help Kingsport balance its budget, is off the table this year.

"There has been nothing ... that has raised the eyebrows of people more than opposition to this garbage fee," Mayor Dennis Phillips said during a Board of Mayor and Aldermen work session Monday afternoon. "We asked people to let us know their preference. From what I heard, the majority don't want the fee, they don't trust government to keep the fee what it's set at and it's a way to open the door for future increases.

"I think the fee is dead on arrival."

Kingsport is facing a $2.3 million shortfall in its 2015 budget, and during the past month city officials have proposed many ways to close the gap, from making additional cuts, increasing property taxes and creating a new garbage fee, to layoffs and salary freezes.

The most recent option — dubbed a "balanced approach" — involved an additional $1.4 million in cuts (including six positions), raising property taxes by four cents, creating the $5 garbage fee while not filling six vacant positions. The plan does include a 1 percent raise across the board.

With the proposed water and sewer rate increases on tap for next year, a majority of home owners in Kingsport would be better off with just a 13-cent property tax hike to balance the city's budget, rather than with a four-cent increase and a monthly garbage fee.

City officials have argued the garbage fee is a more fair option to balance the budget and would better diversify the city's revenue sources.

Two weeks ago, Phillips said if anyone in the city had strong opinions about the plan to let the BMA know. The next day, the Times-News published the city's phone number and the email addresses of every BMA member along with Phillips' remark.

Since then, the BMA received more than 100 emails and phone calls from residents expressing their opinion. The Times-News reviewed most of the emails and the overwhelming majority either supported just a property tax hike or no increases at all. Less than 10 supported the garbage fee.

Vice Mayor Mike McIntire said he received input from 174 citizens with nearly 95 percent opposed to the garbage fee.

"Folks out there are hurting and are having a hard time getting by," McIntire said.

Alderman Tom Parham, who originally supported the balanced approach, reversed his position, saying the issue was one of credibility and trust. Parham said Kingsport did brag to the annexed people of Rock Springs and Colonial Heights about how the city did not have a separate fee for garbage collection.

"The time is not right for a separate fee," Parham said.

Alderwoman Colette George received the same emails as her fellow aldermen, but noted that of the people she spoke with in person, about 80 percent were for the balanced approach.

"Mine were more mixed than anyone else's. I'm the odd man out on that," she said.

Alderman John Clark said he heard from some small business owners who said they would benefit more from a garbage fee than a property tax hike.

The BMA is scheduled to vote on the 2015 budget during its regular meeting Tuesday night. The budget requires two readings with the second vote taking place in two weeks.

Under the proposed budget, no additional money is earmarked for Kingsport City Schools. KCS has requested $775,000 in additional operating funds and $750,000 for new computers. The BMA hinted at giving KCS $150,000 in unallocated funds last month, if the school system went back and looked at additional cuts, but little reference was made to that Monday afternoon.

A nine-cent increase on the property tax rate would cover the school system's request.

McIntire said of the people who contacted him, only 13 mentioned the schools' request, with eight people for additional funding and five opposed. And this was after Board of Education Chair Carrie Upshaw sent an email to parents encouraging their input on the matter.

"That's a pretty flimsy response," McIntire said. Parham and Alderman Tom Segelhorst said they too received very few comments about the school situation.

At the end of Monday's meeting, Director of Schools Dr. Lyle Ailshie said with no additional funding KCS would not be able to do the STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math) program next year.

"I really did think you would hear more from our parents," Ailshie said. "Any help you could give us would be sincerely appreciated."

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