Atlanta City Council begins debate on proposals for new solid waste fees

Atlanta Councilmember Dustin Hillis (R) and Mayor of Atlanta Andre Dickens (L) bag trash along  Proctor Creek during Sweep The Hooch day in Atlanta Saturday, March 26, 2022. Proctor Creek runs through Atlanta and ultimately empties into the Chattahoochee River. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Atlanta Councilmember Dustin Hillis (R) and Mayor of Atlanta Andre Dickens (L) bag trash along Proctor Creek during Sweep The Hooch day in Atlanta Saturday, March 26, 2022. Proctor Creek runs through Atlanta and ultimately empties into the Chattahoochee River. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

The Atlanta City Council started discussions last week on how to revise a solid waste fee system to replace an existing structure that cost taxpayers $19 million in a legal settlement.

For years, Atlanta has charged fees for street sweeping and other trash collection services at residential and commercial properties. But starting in 2019 — just as Atlanta increased those fees to a range of $500 to $12,000 per property — the city failed to perform services at several properties, according to a lawsuit filed in court last year.

The attorneys for more than 50,000 condominium and commercial property owners sued Atlanta, and agreed to a settlement that forces the city to create a $19 million account to reimburse anyone affected by the improper charges.

Additionally, Atlanta has to implement new rates for the collection services.

The council’s Utilities committee convened for two hours Thursday to review three proposed ordinances focused on ways Atlanta could cover street-based sanitary services.

The first option would charge fees based on the number of trips generated from a residential property receiving special services, which includes street sweeping and removal of illegally dumped items. Multifamily properties would be charged based on the number of units.

A second proposal would create an ad valorem tax based on the value of the property that receives special services. The third option would use $20 million from the city’s General Fund, but that amount is currently not included in the city’s budgeted expenses.

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Jason Ingram, Atlanta’s deputy chief operating officer, said the trip-based fee proposal is more complex than the city’s usual method for calculating fees.

Attorney Craig Pendergrast, who represented property owners in the lawsuit against Atlanta, said the city should use the General Fund to pay for the services. Pendergrast said the proposal to create a new tax “doesn’t meet Georgia constitutional legal muster.”

Some attendees found the proposals confusing.

“I am still not clear on the differences,” said resident Nina Gentry. “I’m going to be communicating with all [the Neighborhood Planning Units] and ask them to not take a position on these papers until a fact sheet or presentation so the general citizenry understands what we are trying to do as a city.”

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Councilmembers voiced frustration with the proposals, as well.

“There doesn’t seem to be any measure in here that drives efficiency or drives the city to want to reduce our costs, improve our operations or explore other ways of doing this business,” said Councilman Alex Wan.

But Councilman Dustin Hillis, who authored the proposals, said they have to make do with the options before them.

“The bottom line is we have to pick one of these and we have to implement it and pass it before tax bills go out to avoid future legal challenges,” Hillis said.