121819_MNS_fee_dispute Finley Avenue property

Trash piled up at Bryan and Mary Timberlake’s 0.12-acre vacant lot on Finley Avenue in Atlanta after it went at least a month before being cleaned by the city of Atlanta through services the owners pay for through the city’s solid waste fees.

A local couple is frustrated with the city of Atlanta’s new solid waste fee schedule after their annual bill rose by 26 times from 2018 to this year.

Buckhead residents Bryan and Mary Timberlake, along with Mary’s sister, own a 0.12-acre vacant lot on Finley Avenue near Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in Atlanta’s Bankhead community. Its solid waste fee went from $28.80 in 2018 to $757.20 this year under the city’s new solid waste fee structure, which was approved by the city council in June.

“On top of that, because this thing is arbitrarily called commercial property, we have to pay $397 a year for 911 fees. Our bill this year will be $1,157 for services,” Bryan Timberlake said.

The Timberlakes contacted the Neighbor about the new solid waste fee in September to complain about the rate increase. But shortly before the paper was to publish an article, they said to hold off since they were working with city officials, including District 3 Councilman Antonio Brown, whose district includes the property, to come up with a solution.

However, the couple earlier this month got another bill, and this one stated the city would put a lien against their property if they didn’t pay it by Dec. 28. Bryan Timberlake also said a neighboring property owner who also hadn’t yet paid his fee did not get a notice stating the city would put a lien against their property if they didn’t pay it by Dec. 28.

Also, he said the solid waste fee structure is not fair to all properties, pointing out a nearby “improved 1.31-acre parcel, that is a thriving business,” was charged only $1,376.90. Bryan Timberlake said they plan to pay the fee but will appeal it if there’s a process to do so.

The family’s land is designated as a Tier 1 property, which he said is appropriate for downtown Atlanta, but it doesn’t get those services as often as it’s supposed to. According to the city’s website, Tier 1 properties are supposed to get their grass cut on the right-of-way twice a month, street sweeping twice a week and litter basket trash collection daily.

“We don’t have any need for side waste pickup,” Bryan Timberlake said. “They’re supposed (to) clean the streets twice a week, but it doesn’t happen. There’s tires and mattresses and garbage out there from time to time. The guy who owns the property behind us has a salvage yard.”

He emailed both the Neighbor and the city a photo of trash that had piled up on the property after it had not been cleaned up in at least a month. However, Bryan Timberlake said, the city immediately sent a crew to clean it up once they saw the photo.

“But to their credit, I went by there today and they had scooped up all that stuff,” he said Dec. 10.

Bryan Timberlake and his wife both said the city should have conducted a thorough rate study before increasing the rates, not after.

In October the council did approve an agreement with Arcadis/BPA to conduct a new solid waste rate study. The $231,620 study will include a complete analysis of solid waste and recycling rates, as well as an analysis of the current rate-setting methodology.

While it may not be perfect, the rate hike was long overdue to address budget shortfalls, District 8 Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who chairs the council’s city utilities committee and represents part of Buckhead, said in June.

“The council approved solid waste fees in November and they hadn’t been changed in 15 years, and the solid waste enterprise is operating at a deficit,” he said. “We have accumulated over a period of years a $35 million deficit that could grow to $40 million this year. … This is something we have to address.”

When the Neighbor contacted Brown seeking comment on the issue, he forwarded to the news outlet an email to him from James Jackson Jr., the city’s commissioner of public works, in response to Mary Timberlake’s emails about it.

“The city did in fact conduct a fee study in 2017 and presented findings with recommendation to the city utilities committee in 2017,” Jackson said, also citing the new study approved by the council in October.

That study, he said, will “validate the rates implemented during (fiscal 2019) or provide a follow-up with consideration of additional options.”

“To assure the department remains within budget, we have also shared the scheduled services will be phased in as funding from the (fiscal 2019) rate increase is realized to assure the department operates within its funding capability,” Jackson said. “I would add further, the department has improved in delivery of services across the board as we continue to work to provide the highest levels of service possible.”

But that may not be enough for Bryan Timberlake, who feels his property is being unfairly billed through the new solid waste fee schedule.

“That’s the whole point: to collect enough revenue to keep the city clean,” he said. “They’ve decided this is a Tier 1 area because of future growth. That’s not equitable for the property owners right now. It doesn’t make sense.”

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