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DURHAM - Advocates of the so-called "penny for parks" proposal for raising money to improve the standard of maintenance of Durham's parks succeeded this week in keeping it alive for the City Council's upcoming budget debate.
Mayor Bill Bell acquiesced to the idea of discussing the earmark in next month's budget talks, after Councilman Steve Schewel conceded that none of his colleagues are inclined for now to spend it on new construction.
Bell said the move was only for "discussion purposes" and that he's still far from sold on the idea of reserving a percentage of the city's tax rate for parks upkeep, as the council did two years ago for housing programs.
He said he wants a detailed maintenance plan from the Parks and Recreation Department and information on how Durham's tax and fee structure compares to those in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill and Cary.
With all that, Bell said, "I'll be in a better position to really weigh the pros and cons and speak about what I personally feel comfortable supporting with respect to parks and rec."
The decision to list the earmark as a prospective addition to the city's fiscal 2014-15 budget nonetheless represented a reversal of sorts, as the council last month appeared to shelve it.
But Schewel, a volunteer soccer coach, has continued to press the issue. He and three other councilmen - Eugene Brown, Eddie Davis and Don Moffitt - toured four city parks late last month to look for maintenance deficiencies.
They had no trouble finding them, observing problems with drainage, landscaping, vandalism and debris.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done, absolutely no question about that," Brown said on Monday. "But the question is where the money is going to come from, and what are our top priorities within the Parks and Recreation Department."
Council members agreed that any discussion of a tax earmark should consider using the revenue from "up to" 1 cent on the city's property tax rate, an amount that would yield about $2.4 million a year to start.
But they said half- or quarter-cent rate earmarks are also possible, and said they want to see what the parks staff would suggest doing with the correspondingly lesser amounts of money.
The council also touched on a separate issue, its move last month to instruct City Manager Tom Bonfield to plan on repealing the city's monthly garbage-collection fee as part of his fiscal 2014-14 budget request.
The $1.80-a-month levy went into effect last summer and has never really stopped being a topic of political controversy.
It drew opposition from the People's Alliance, a big-three Durham political group that in the past two elections has supported all seven of the council's current members.
The group sees the fee as regressive, disproportionately burdening low- and middle-income residents, and favors replacing it with a revenue-equivalent increase of the city's tax rate.
In supporting passage of the trash-collection fee last year, Bell pointed out that neighboring cities and towns rely more heavily than Durham on user fees, and reap public-relations benefits in subsequent comparisons of tax rates.
Bell said the data on other cities he asked for on Monday will put the council in "a better position" to debate the issue again.