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City Manager defends unpopular garbage fee

 

SARAH LOWERY

Staff Writer

 

It’s been almost three weeks since the Lincolnton City Council approved its budget for the next fiscal year, but one particular aspect of the new financial plan, set to take effect July 1, remains at the forefront of many local residents’ minds.

A new monthly charge of $10 for citizens’ garbage collection hit quite a nerve with many, resulting in a rather heated public hearing prior to the council approving the 2013-2014 budget on June 3.

Councilman Devin Rhyne, who had long expressed his opposition to the trash-pickup fee and warned that it would likely create a stir, cast the lone dissenting vote. He maintained that cuts could have been made elsewhere in the budget as opposed to imposing the fee.

Lincolnton businesses will also start paying the charge at varying levels, with individual rates determined by a fee schedule.

City Manager Jeff Emory said this week that he understands why some citizens are upset, but he stands firm in his belief that it was a necessary decision.

“I don’t blame people — no one wants to pay more for any service,” he said.

However, he reiterated what he’s said all along. Based on the financial situation of the city, he strongly believes additional sources of revenue were needed to continue the level of services Lincolnton offers its residents.

While many who are opposed to the new fee have said it’s unnecessary because they already pay property taxes, Emory rebutted that notion.

He noted that those property taxes result in $4.6 million a year in revenue. Meanwhile, just the Police Department and Fire Department alone cost the city $4.8 annually to run, he said.

Likewise, since 2009, the city’s general fund has lost over $1 million from other sources of revenue trending downward.

Emory cited some of the research he did regarding other municipalities imposing similar fees, with 70 percent of cities and towns with populations greater than 5,000 having such charges in place.

“And very, very few provide the level of service we do,” he added.

He estimated that an equivalent tax increase of roughly 5 cents would have been necessary to generate the same amount of money that the new monthly charge will.

From day one, he said, he had three choices regarding the matter: find additional revenue, cut services or cut employee benefits.

“I will always, as a city manager, fight for our employees,” he said.

This, he believes, has helped the city see little turnover among its workers.

For those who raised concerns over whether the new garbage fee, once in place, will be at risk of going up each year, Emory doesn’t foresee that being necessary. The intention is that the current rate should be “sufficient for several years,” he said, reiterating that it would not have been necessary at all had the city’s finances been where they were five years ago before the recession took hold.

“In an ideal world, the property tax would cover it,” Emory said. “But in reality, it doesn’t.”

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