Board rejects Habitat fee waiver 3-2

By Tom Joyce

August 8, 2014

In an admittedly sticky decision, the majority of Mount Airy commissioners voted 3-2 not to waive municipal water/sewer tap-on fees for Habitat for Humanity homes out of fairness to others.

The city council was presented with a proposal that not only would have eliminated those utility-connection fees — amounting to $1,550 per site — for two Habitat homes now being built on Galloway Street, but all others in the future. The justification for the proposed waiver, requested by a Habitat official, surrounded the fact that families occupying those residences are low-income and the non-profit organization is playing a key role in providing affordable housing to that segment.

But in leading a push resulting in the 3-2 decision rejecting the proposal during a meeting Thursday afternoon, commissioners Shirley Brinkley and Jon Cawley argued that other low-income residents deserve the same consideration for a charge routinely assessed to homeowners.

And rather than give preferential treatment to Greater Mount Airy Area Habitat for Humanity, the board’s majority rejected its fee waiver request until a policy can be devised to include housing of other non-profits and low-income residents in general.

“I know I’m going to look like a bad guy here,” Brinkley said of going against Habitat for Humanity, a respected international organization, which has benefited from fee waivers here in the past. “I have no problem with Habitat — but I want to know how this board can justify waiving these fees?”

The first-term commissioner said she doesn’t understand how this could be done when others with low incomes aren’t given the same consideration “who also may be paying a mortgage.”

Brinkley agreed with comments by Cawley and City Attorney Hugh Campbell that people who build houses probably don’t fall into the low-income range. But she said her concern was directed at local homeowners recently targeted by the municipality in a push to have all residences in the city limits connected to water and sewer services.

This includes citizens who might have owned their homes for decades, which have been annexed by Mount Airy in recent years, and now face an expense easily exceeding $2,000 (counting the tap fees and plumbing work) which they can’t afford, Brinkley said.

“We talk about being fair to all — and this is not a good example (of that),” Brinkley added of granting a waiver to one entity in particular. “I think we need to consider needs as if all of our residents were Habitat families.”

Cawley even went so far as to say that singling out a group for such a waiver might be illegal.

City officials must ensure that policies “are fair to everybody,” he said.

“If we’re going to do this for Habitat, we need to do it for other non-profits — that’s just the way I see it.”

Cawley went on to vote against the waiver, along with Brinkley and the board’s Jim Armbrister, while commissioners Dean Brown and Steve Yokeley favored the proposal.

Though he is a former board member with the local Habitat group and supports its mission, Cawley acknowledged that Thursday’s decision likely will be unpopular in today’s all-or-nothing climate.

“Anytime you vote ‘no’ on something, it’s like you’re not in favor of a particular group — if you ask a question, you’re the enemy.”

Lost Revenue

Along with the fairness issue, Cawley said he was concerned about the city water and sewer fund losing money from waivers of tap-on fees, given that those charges do offset related costs incurred by the municipality.

“I’m not interested in the city making a profit off Habitat homes,” he commented, “but I don’t believe we should take a loss, either.”

Cawley said he “just wasn’t in favor of the way” the waiver proposal was presented. “My hope was that it would not cost the city any money.”

Despite the 3-2 vote, Brinkley said some plan needs to be worked out for addressing tap-on fees for low-income persons, whether they occupy Habitat homes or not.

“I don’t want this to die,” she said, “because we still have a need out there and I want to meet this need.”

City Manager Barbara Jones had no ready solution in mind Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know what we can set up,” Jones said of a fee-waiver program that would meet legal requirements.

As part of further research on the matter, the city manager said she will contact other communities to learn how they deal with the issue of hookups for low-income residents.

Board Appointments

Among other business at the meeting, the commissioners:

Appointed two people to the Mount Airy Zoning Board of Adjustment to replace members who have resigned. Both Tim Devore and Chad Tidd were approved to fill out unexpired terms ending on Jan. 1, which formerly were held by Fred Goins and Roscoe Hines.

• Named Tidd to the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority to complete an unexpired term that ends next Jan. 15. It formerly was held by Sandy Hallman, who resigned from the group after accepting a job in Greensboro.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.