CHAPEL HILL- A recent court ruling means Orange County will have to find a new way to fund curbside recycling pick-up for rural residents, but commissioners say they aren’t sure what is the most equitable way to pay for the program.

At their last meeting of 2013, Orange County Commissioners debated whether to create a new service tax district to pay for rural recycling pick-up or give residents the option to sign up for the service.

Some on the board, including Penny Rich, worried that switching to a subscription service could lead as many as 20 percent of participants to opt out.

“The subscription service just doesn’t sit right with me,” said Rich. “If we’re a county that is encouraging recycling and we have a program, it should be a program that everyone should use.”

Currently the county provides curbside recycling pick-up to 13,700 rural homes, but county leaders want to expand the service in the future. Pick-up is estimated to cost $630,000 annually and officials say they’ll need an additional $1.3 million to buy 96-gallon roll-out carts and two new trucks this year.

The proposed subscription service would cost homeowners approximately $58 yearly, while a service district tax could add as much as 1.5 cents per $100 of valuation to property tax bills.

Under the subscription model, only those using the service would pay the fee, but if commissioners approve a county-wide service district, all property owners in the unincorporated areas would be charged, including those who own undeveloped land or live outside the bounds of the pick-up routes.

Though she said it’s not a perfect solution, Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier favored the service district plan. She said because increased recycling is a community goal, it is appropriate to fund the program using tax dollars.

“If you think about our taxes in general, we pay for the whole array of services and we don’t necessarily use them all,” said Pelissier. “We have made a commitment to recycling in this community and I want to maintain that commitment.”

But Commissioner Mark Dorosin said he’s concerned about the impact a new tax might have on rural residents.

“I think the argument about the value of recycling as a value of the county is counterbalanced by trying to maintain affordability in the county,” said Dorosin. “We’re talking about a 1.5 cent tax on rural areas of the county. That’s troubling.”

Board Chair Barry Jacobs said that if the county adopts the service district plan, officials would need to act quickly to expand the program.

“I see no equity in charging people for something, then having a minimalist or gradual approach to expanding the services,” said Jacobs. “For all these discussions about tax equity, if I’m paying for it, I should get it.”

Commissioner Earl McKee was not convinced. He argued that Orange County residents have prioritized recycling in the past and they aren’t likely to give that up.

“I’m still more comfortable with trusting our citizens to do what they are already doing,” said McKee. “I’m much more comfortable with providing an option that will allow folks to do it for a fee rather than do it under what I view as a system of coercion.”

The board voted 6-1 to get detailed information and hold a series of public hearings about the service district plan. McKee opposed, saying while he’s a strong supporter of recycling, he couldn’t support a plan that doesn’t offer residents the option of opting out.

The board will discuss the issue again on January 23, and public hearings on the service district tax plan will be held in the spring. If approved, the service district would be put in place by July 1.