Murfreesboro mandated ‘trash tax’ on residents not based in law, attorney says

Murfreesboro Assistant City Manager Darren Gore talks about the $5 monthly trash fee per household that will show up in January water bills. Scott Broden, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee

Attorney questions why city allows businesses to opt out of trash service but not residents.The council increased trash fees and property taxes to balance the budget to fund rising costs.

A trash fee policy by Murfreesboro officials allowing only commercial customers to opt out requires a yet-established ordinance to be legal, an attorney said.

"They are unequally applying it," Murfreesboro attorney Brad Hornsby said. "They are supposed to have guidelines and follow the law. They are not allowed to arbitrarily pick and choose what they want to do, which is exactly what they are doing. Business people in our city get breaks where as the average citizen and home owners do not."

Messages were left for Murfreesboro City Manager Craig Tindall on Friday, but he was unavailable for comment. Tindall had served as the city attorney before the council promoted him to city manager about a year ago.

The Murfreesboro City Council established monthly trash hauling bills in January at $5 per can. The council recently agreed to raise the monthly fees starting in July to $7.50 per can for residential customers, including those in duplexes, and $30 per can for commercial and multifamily customers. Commercial and multifamily customers can opt out of the city service, but residential customers cannot opt out, city spokesman Mike Browning said.

The council initially established the monthly trash fees in January at $5 per can because solid waste costs are expected to rise when the local Middle Point Landfill closes within a decade.

The council members recently increased the monthly trash fees by 50 percent for residents and raised property taxes by 35.8% to balance the budget for the rising costs of city services. The trash fees rose to $7.50 per can for residential customers, including those in duplexes, and $30 per can for commercial and multifamily customers.

The elected officials, however, did not approve an ordinance about an opt out policy, city spokesman Mike Browning confirmed.

‘Big mess’ if opt out allowed for all

Councilman Ronnie Martin disagreed that the city is giving commercial trash customers a break, given the per can fee is four times greater than what residential customers pay.

The city faces higher costs to provide commercial trash pick up than residential services with side-loading trucks with equipment that can lift and dump the cans, Martin said. The smaller commercial trucks that can navigate tighter streets and alleys are rear-loading, and require two employees providing a more dangerous service to manually lift and dump each can, he said.

"We would prefer to see the commercial businesses go to a private hauler," said Martin, adding that the city is not equipped with a fleet of garbage trucks that can pick up the large dumpsters at commercial properties.

The city, however, has too many residential trash customers to provide them with an opt out of a fee that’s less than what a private hauler would charge, Martin said.

"We would get trash being dumped around the city, and it would be a big mess," Martin said.

Why give business opt out?

Hornsby suggested cities can treat commercial property owners different than residential property owners as long as the policy is based on a well-crafted ordinance.

"Basically, they are saying a home owner cannot opt out but a commercial business can opt out, and there’s nothing that says they are allowed to do that," said Hornsby, who opposes the city treating businesses more favorably than residential taxpayers.

"If the whole purpose of this fee is to at address Mt. Trashmore (Middle Point Landfill) filling up, then what is the purpose of allowing (commercial customers) to opt out because their trash is going to end up in the exact same location?" Hornsby said. "And we’re not getting the money to address the issue from them."

Trash bills will increase

Hornsby also questioned why the city manager would use legalese in calling trash bills "revenue enhancements."

"This is a tax," Hornsby said. "Because for the first 25 years I lived in this city, I never paid a separate tax for that. It was part of my city taxes."

The council, however, chose to charge $7.50 per can as a phase in to the $13.25 needed to cover the actual cost for the service, Martin said.

"It’s going to get more expensive," Martin said. "We are just trying to slowly recover some of that."

City trash fees upset customers: Murfreesboro business owner opts out of paying city’s $210 monthly trash bill

Council ponders higher taxes: Murfreesboro trash fees may more than double to keep tax hike lower

What to do with trash: ‘We need to handle our own business’: Leaders plan for end of Middle Point Landfill

How does the city’s trash fee and property tax hikes affect your budget? Reach Scott Broden at sbroden@dnj.com or 615-278-5158, and follow him on Twitter @ScottBroden.

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