Special tax district unpopular among attendees of public input meeting

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"Listening stations" at the public input meeting for the proposed downtown municipal service district. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
“Listening stations” at the public input meeting for the proposed downtown municipal service district. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

A couple dozen citizens came to council chambers in Wilmington’s City Hall Monday night to give their input on the possible creation of a municipal service district in the heart of the city.

A tax increase of seven cents for every $100 of property valuation (as determined by New Hanover County tax records) would fund supplemental services in the new district, which in this case would be limited to downtown Wilmington’s central business district. The biggest chunk (40 percent) of the estimated $276,000 that can be raised through the special tax would go toward ambassadors, who will act as both downtown guides for visitors as well as be extra eyes and ears to help provide extra security. They will not, however, be sworn officers or carry weapons. The money will also be used for cleaning, maintenance and beautification of the area, which is popular among both tourists and locals.

What is not popular, at least based on the crowd that came to voice their thoughts Monday evening, is the creation of the district itself. Several business owners were on hand to speak to city staff at various “listening stations” around the room and leave their comments on posters and in a survey box.

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” said Alan Murphy, who owns a business in the CBD. “Most people that own their businesses are do-it-yourself-ers. The cleaning, marketing, safety – I do all that myself.”

Murphy, who came to the input meeting with his six-year-old daughter, said he is a member of Wilmington Downtown Inc., the group that put the initial proposal together and presented it before city council last month. He said he has been to all the meetings WDI held before bringing the item to the city and intends to speak during public comments at the next city council meeting.

“I don’t know any other businesses that are for this. Nobody else is for this outside of WDI,” Murphy said. “To take money from me [in taxes] is to take something from [my daughter]. I’m not for people taking money from giving my daughter what she needs.”

Many of the comments left on the posters echoed Murphy’s sentiments. At the station regarding cleaning and aesthetic services, one person wrote, “I already clean my own area. Why do I need to pay for somebody to clean what I already did?” Another person said, “This program is not needed. [The] services [are] already provided by the city.”

There were also suggestions for the budget, with multiple people writing that Cape Fear Community College and the governments of the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County, who all own property in the CBD, should chip in to help lower the tax increase on private property owners.

One commenter who had very strong feelings against simply wrote, “This is elitist b******t!” on nearly all of the posters around the room.

The input from the meeting was collected by city staff and will be used to compile a report that will be presented before council. It will take what was collected by WDI in their initial report, which was not sanctioned by the city, and build off it. Council will then decide whether they should move forward with the proposal.

If they choose to do so, they must move quickly, as it will have to be included in the budget for fiscal year 2016-2017, which begins July 1. Should the city move forward with the proposal, they will have to have the report available to the public for a minimum of four weeks before they can schedule a public hearing, which is another requirement in the process to create a municipal service district. Currently, there are 56 such districts across North Carolina.

As of Monday, city spokeswoman Malissa Talbert said city council has no concrete plans to move forward with the proposal yet, and no public hearing has been set.