The Macon-Bibb County Commission has been struggling over garbage. No, not the refuse itself, but the fee to pick it up. And not really the fee — but when to send the bill for the fee, either annually or quarterly.
Last March the commission approved a proposal, 5-3, to switch from quarterly billing to annual billing. The first bills of $300 were to go out this October and residents and other customers using the county’s garbage service wouldn’t see another bill come due until January 2019 and annually thereafter. The garbage and recycling fees would be levied on residential properties, occupied or vacant. Commissioners Virgil Watkins, Bert Bivins and Elaine Lucas voted in opposition.
The reasoning behind the move was twofold, to save $100,000 in expenses associated with mailing out the billing four times a year and to increase the collection rate to match the rate of collection of property taxes.
A little noticed aspect of the new ordinance drew this Editorial Boards ire. The new ordinance also called for a cost increase for services. Property owners would pay the same $20 monthly rate over the first 15 months, but in 2019, the fee would be $264 for the year, or $22 a month. In following years the collection rate would be determined by inflation.
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Our problem? Once that provision is in the ordinance our erstwhile county representatives wouldn’t have to address the issue again accept at which time the vendor’s contract is due to be renegotiated, but they could do that without their flack jackets on, not fearing a voter backlash because of a price hike.
But all that hit a snag a little more than a week ago when Commissioner Mallory Jones started hearing from his constituents. The done deal started to unravel — first in the commission’s Operations and Finance Committee — where his idea to keep quarterly billing was tabled, but it didn’t die there.
It came up again in the full commission meeting last Tuesday and passed on a 5-4 vote with Commissioners Gary Bechtel, Larry Schlesinger, Al Tillman and Scotty Shepherd voting to stick with their earlier annual billing decision and Commissioners Jones and Joe Allen joining the earlier dissenters.
It didn’t matter that several classes of exemptions had been added — seniors, disabled, low income, owners of uninhabitable properties — two additional commission members were swayed by, we believe, two telling arguments. The annual bills for landlords and apartment owners could be daunting. That’s a fact that should not be discounted, although property owners in other jurisdictions seem to manage, we feel the main force that turned the tourniquet on Jones and Allen was timing.
Friday, the commission held its last required public meeting before it approved a 3-mill tax increase on a 5-3 vote. Commissioners Elaine Lucas, Joe Allen and Mallory Jones voted against it. Commissioner Bert Bivins was absent. Was it just a case of too much, garbage and tax increase, hitting at the same time for their comfort?
However, this episode isn’t over. Mayor Robert Reichert has floated the idea that he might pull his veto pen from its scabbard. If he does, the commission will get another crack at an issue they’ve been dealing with since January. An issue, that at this point, they wish would just go away.
The commissioners will have to re-examine what they already know. Changing to annual billing, as other communities have already borne witness, increases the collection rate according to Macon-Bibb County Tax Commissioner Wade McCord. That could erase millions of dollars in arrears. That’s real money. It would also save, at minimum, $100,000 in mailing and processing costs.
It was Commissioner Jones who was sweating Navicent Health over the county’s paltry $451,600 contribution for indigent care, saying the county could afford 14 needed new hires by not funding the hospital. Certainly he should be just as concerned about leaving this amount of money on the table and unavailable to help pay for any of the county’s services to taxpayers.
Garbage and recycling is one of those essential services the county has to provide, just like health care, as cost effectively as possible. We don’t want to pay a cent more than necessary, but this won’t be the last costly conversation this community will have that includes the words “garbage,” “solid waste” or “landfill.”