Monday, July 22, 2024

With 15 unfinished projects on the books, city considers postponing capital plan

The Masonboro Loop Trail is just one of eight projects still not completed from a 2014 transportation bond approved by voters. (Port City Daily/file)

WILMINGTON — During Monday’s five-hour budget work session — one of four scheduled prior to adopting a new budget July 1 — Wilmington City Council learned of a more than $9 million gap in overruns of projects already underway.

City staff presented an overview of needed capital improvement projects, as well as the progress of those already underway. They recommended postponing its five-year capital improvement plan, slated for the fiscal year 2024 budget, due to a shortage of funds. 

READ MORE: Another $8 million needed to finish MLK Center, nCino Sports Complex

Instead, the overview suggested focusing on maintenance issues and completing projects funded by bonds nearly a decade old.

The city’s last CIP was approved in fiscal year 2018 for $59.1 million, which increased taxes by $0.0018. It’s set to expire this summer.

The following are just a portion of the 142 active projects city staff is currently managing.

Transportation Bond

In 2014 a $55-million transportation bond was approved by voters. Slated to cover 37 projects — some of which have been combined — the city has a revised budget of $62.4 million. 

Sixteen projects have been completed; eight are in the construction phase or out to bid. Only about $20 million has yet to be spent, and staff estimates the total costs will come in at more than $70 million, leaving a $9.8 million gap.

“Looking at the program as a whole, as some projects come in under budget, we then move that funding into contingency and use it to supplement the other projects,” division engineer Denise Freund said.

The majority of funding gaps can be attributed to inflation, construction and material cost increases, supply chain issues and a lack of competitive bids, she added.

Completion time for some has been pushed back due to coordination with utility lines, staff shortages, and right-of-way acquisitions with private property owners.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark was not happy that projects approved in 2014 were still underway in 2023.

“I have advice: Don’t ever take this much on,” he said of the bond. “I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, it’s just the way things happened. But taking on this many projects is just wrong.”

Rivenbark added if the city had committed to only half the number, it could have completed them in a timely fashion.

Council member Clifford Barnett asked if voting on half the amount of money in the future, and requesting the other half at a later time, is preferable.

While there is not a limit on how much bonds can be approved for, the city would have to ask the residents to agree to a second bond, finance director Jennifer Maready explained.

“There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s another approach,” she told council. “I don’t think anyone, at the time, thought this would be as overwhelming as it was.”

In response, council member Neil Anderson said citizens likely “lose faith in government” when projects have taken up to 13 years to complete.

“Even if you do half, and in a timely fashion complete it, it speaks more volumes to the voters,” Rivenbark agreed.

Projects currently in the works:

  • 17th Street sidewalk: Greenfield to Wooster
  • Eastwood Road access management
  • Greenville Loop Trail, section 1
  • Masonboro Loop Trail, sections 1 and 2
  • Oleander sidewalk: from Hawthorn to 42nd Street and from Wooster to Mimosa
  • Racine Drive right turn lane

Another eight projects are in the right-of-way acquisition phase:

  • Streetscape, along with 8th street crosswalks at Wooster and Dawson, 16th and 17th Street crosswalks at Dawson: a combination of five projects; construction to be complete third quarter 2024
  • Greenville Loop Trail sections 2 and 3 (Old Military to Park Avenue): construction to be complete by third quarter 2024, and fourth quarter 2023, respectively
  • Kerr Avenue Trail (Patrick to Hurst): construction to be completed third quarter 2024
  • Pine Grove North: MacMillan and Oleander: construction to be complete third quarter 2024
  • Wallace Avenue roundabout and Wrightsville Avenue sidewalks: 44th to Independence and College to Hawthorn; construction to be completed third quarter 2024
  • Pine Grove South: Greenville Loop and Holly Tree: construction to be completed second quarter 2025
  • Carolina Beach Road Streetscape – on hold by North Carolina Department of Transportation; will kick off again in 2025 with construction in 2029

Parks Bond

A 2016 bond was approved by voters to address Wilmington’s low level of green space per resident. At the time, the city had 191 square feet of green space per person, even less than New York City’s 200 square feet. 

$30 million in bonds was approved by voters, with an additional $7.6 million set aside from the general fund for improvements at city-owned parks and recreation facilities. To repay the debt, city taxes were increased 2.1 cents per $100 property value. 

Of the 15 projects included, 53%, or eight, have been completed.

The city’s initial budget of $38 million has nearly doubled to $64.4 million, with only $39 million spent at this time. The seven remaining projects are either in the design phase, construction or planning.

Still remaining are upgrades to the entrance of Riverfront Park, building the nCino Sports Complex, constructing a new gym and commercial kitchen at the MLK center, installing a kayak launch at Bradley Creek, undergoing a second phase of improvements at Olsen Park, doing additional repairs at Halyburton Park and Greenfield Park, as well as implementing parking for the cross-city trail.

Riverfront Park is considered finished, though there is one major renovation scheduled. The park opened in July 2021, including the Live Oak Bank Pavilion concert venue, but finishing the main promenade, entrance to the park, on Nutt Street is still underway. Since 2019, city staff have met — and continue to meet weekly — with the contractor.

Construction was postponed, director of community services Amy Beatty explained to council, due to location. The Riverfront Park developer is underway to complete the work on a partial-reimbursement basis with the city.

Currently the promenade consists of 14 feet of asphalt pavement. Once finished, it will include pavement, sidewalks, brick furnishings, lighting, and landscape elements. Work is being done in conjunction with the Metropolitan — a mixed-used center near the intersection of Harnett and Nutt streets.

The city is paying two-thirds of the cost, with the Metropolitan developers paying the other portion.

Another anticipated project, the nCino Sports Complex, has been bid out to T.A. Loving for $12.4 million. The company is awaiting permitting to begin work and a groundbreaking is scheduled for Feb. 15. Estimated completion is scheduled for the second quarter of 2024.

The 64 acres, formally a landfill, will house multipurpose fields, including a fully synthetic one and natural turf, as well as athletic lighting and amenities.

Council approved a $5.3-million increase to the budget in August. The total cost has jumped from $10 million to nearly $17 million.

“It’s a complicated project because of it being a brownfields site, so it’s just one giant earth-moving project,” Beatty said.

A long-awaited project is the MLK Center gym renovation and commercial kitchen addition, located at 401 S. 8th St. Council approved an increase to the budget for $2.6 million in August, increasing the total to $6.6. million.

“I’m not accusing us of having lackluster effort, but I’ll tell you what, that snafu in the process early last year is really costing us as it relates to this project,” council member Kevin Spears said Monday.

He was referring to a hired contractor designing a structure that did not align with council’s wishes. Work was paused until it was reviewed and re-designed to fit the city’s needs.

READ MORE: Stop-work order pauses MLK Center design for months

“I’m getting beat up a lot,” Spears continued. “It doesn’t look like we’re putting any precedence on its completion and residents are getting upset.”

Beatty suggested offering additional outreach in the neighborhood to provide some assurances progress is being made.

The design is at 60% completion and construction is scheduled to be done in the third quarter of 2024. The original budget was $1.8 million and there’s a revised budget of $4.4 million, leaving a $2.5 million gap.

The Bradley Creek kayak launch is at 25% design, with an estimated completion date of the first quarter of 2024. The city will install a new non-motorized boat launch at the end of Circular Drive, next to the bridge over Bradley Creek on Oleander Drive.

The original budget was $220,000, but revisions show a need of $375,625. The city received a $155,625 CAMA grant for a portion of the cost, but there’s still a $53,100 funding gap.

As part of the project, there will be limited parking spots available — only two or three. Additional space is not an option as the property is abutted by private owners on one side and a Cape Fear Public Utility Authority easement on the other.

Meanwhile, in the northern portion of the county, Olsen Park Phase 2 includes a trail, maintenance building and pickleball courts, and potentially multi-purpose fields and parking. The budget is at roughly $2 million, though Beatty told council the planning is still only in the schematic phase.

“We are able to design it to build it to the budget we have,” she said. “We can come back and fill in any scope we take out in a later year.”

The improvements are being partially funded by the county at $1.4 million. While costs were intended to be shared equally, Beatty explained the county donated land for the project, which “gave a credit” toward its financial portion — $409,670.

County spokesperson Alex Riley confirmed New Hanover donated a 25-acre parcel toward the construction of Olsen Park’s miracle field.

Located on 17th Street, Halyburton Park is also scheduled to receive improvements. A new interior trial, signage replacement, displays inside the visitors center, and playground equipment are slated for $305,000.

The design is only at 30%, but there’s a completion date of December 2023. Staff is looking into adding a layered liner over the glass windows of the visitors’ center. While aesthetically pleasing, it attracts heat, and the goal is to make the structure more energy efficient.

Closer to downtown, some sections of Greenfield Park have been resurfaced in recent years and the city is looking to complete remaining portions for $500,000. Crews are resurfacing the 5-mile trail in order of sections most in need, as well as making improvements to the fragrance garden.

Additional issues include parking along the cross-city trail, which Beatty said the city is working with businesses to address.

“We’re modeling this on something that the city of Greenville, South Carolina, does along the Swamp Rabbit Trail where certain commercial centers provided dedicated parking in exchange for advertisements and marketing of those commercial centers,” Beatty said.

The next five years

Deputy city manager Mary Vigue told council that staff submitted, reviewed and prioritized projects in the next five-year capital improvement plan in the fall. However, the current CIP budget is $38.6 million and unfunded needs citywide — not just in the parks and transportation areas — total $170.9 million.

“Even if we had $170 million, we would need to manage expectations about what can and can’t be completed based on staff resources, availability in the market and those things,” Vigue said. “We would need to balance staff workload with those demands, look at the bidding market, which is slowly improving, and develop a long-term funding strategy for maintenance.”

Parks facilities maintenance costs have increased 250%, or $657,000, and building maintenance has gone up by 300%, or $553,000, Vigue added. To address these needs, a CIP team meets regularly and staff is engaging across various departments.

Staff will bring back to council in March maintenance projects that cannot be delayed and need to be funded in fiscal year 2024. Vigue said maintenance projects are paid for out of the same funding bucket as new projects, so they compete for money.

The typical CIP would be delayed until fiscal year 2025. PCD asked what projects would be put on the backburner by delaying a new five-year CIP but didn’t hear back by press and will update upon response.

Mayor Bill Saffo was in favor of staff’s suggested plan. “I think it focuses our attention on the things the citizens voted for,” he said.

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