With debates over garbage fees and sewer authorities, East Ridge budget season has been particularly messy this year.
But after a three-hour meeting full of tense discussion and two close votes, the City Council voted Thursday night not to form its own water and wastewater authority, and not to raise property taxes in favor of keeping garbage fees as a separate bill.
Forming the authority would have been what Mayor Brent Lambert called “the first step of a thousand-step process” toward the city trying to take back its sewer lines from the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority.
Lambert had led the charge for the city to divorce itself from the WWTA after a Feb. 9 meeting with WWTA leaders in which Lambert said the authority threatened to raise the city’s sewer rates because East Ridge’s decision to enforce fees for cutting into city streets.
“It’s a very strong statement from the city of East Ridge saying, ‘You’re not going to jerk us around,’” Lambert said in one of several impassioned statements.
But other council members argued that the city did not have enough information about such a transition and the costs or complications it could involve.
“I do not know enough to make a rational decision on this,” said Councilman Larry Sewell, who voted against it.
After the 3-2 vote against forming the WWTA, the council turned its attention to garbage.
East Ridge residents’ monthly $15 garbage fee is headed off their water bills and onto owners’ yearly property tax bills.
The council has been wrestling with the dilemma with how to fund their $1.4 million sanitation fund ever since Tennesse-American Water decided it would stop attaching residents’ garbage fee to water bills.
The council previously voted down doing away with the garbage fee altogether and folding it into the property tax rate, meaning 84 percent of East Ridge homeowners could see a tax break, but those with homes appraised above $165,000 would see an increase.
Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander told councilmen that the county would be willing to attach the fee to property tax bills in a yearly lump sum as a special assessment.
That lump sum would work out to be $180 for homeowners and a “tiered rate” for duplex and apartment building owners.
How to work out landlords’ tiered price range — $180 to $730 or more — remains a problem. Some apartment building owners may try to opt out of the city service and go with a Dumpster company if it is cheaper, City Manager Tim Gobble argued.
About 47 percent of East Ridge residents rent, said Gobble, adding that he feared that could put a blow in collection rates.
“I can draft a solution,” City Attorney John Anderson said repeatedly, saying he would look at lists of the apartment complexes, population and other factors before amending the ordinance for its second reading.
When Councilman Larry Sewell, who was for the tax increase, asked Hullander what made more sense for the county, Hullander admitted that switching out the fee for a tax was simpler for collection.
“Most cities do not have a separate garbage fee,” he explained after the meeting.
Because it was a special called meeting, residents were not given an opportunity to voice their preference before another 3-2 vote to OK the yearly lump sum.