Friday, June 21, 2024

Councilman opposes board raises as city passes first read of $351M budget

City council member voted against the fiscal year 2024 budget, opposing for the second year in a row a stipend increase for council.

WILMINGTON — As the Wilmington City Council passed the first reading of its fiscal year 2024 budget, one member voted against it for the second year in a row.

READ MORE: Wilmington council defends budgeted raises against newcomer

A redux of last year, city council member Luke Waddell is still not a proponent of raises for council members and the mayor, as nominal as they may be.

Right now, each council member earns $18,113 annually and the mayor receives $23,794. The proposal for this year’s budget is to increase their allocations to $20,611 and $25,225, respectively.

“We had a 25% increase in the last two budget cycles, a total of a 50% increase in stipend for the mayor and council,” Waddell said Tuesday. “And now it rose another roughly 10% increase. I realize this was part of a larger plan that had come forward over the last few years, but then we’re going to go to merit increases we would be included in with the staff, basically in perpetuity.”

Last year, Waddell pushed to table the stipend increases, especially since the city was implementing a tax increase. He didn’t think it was fair to taxpayers. The 1.42-cent property tax hike from 2022 helped fund an overall $7 million bump to include higher employee wages; it helped fund the $28,000 boost to council salaries, as well covered a compensation study.

Waddell touted at Tuesday’s council meeting if anyone deserved a raise, it should be the mayor, who’s in “more of a full-time position” than the council members.

In response, council member Kevin Spears said he disagreed; the board is on the clock full time.

“I think I say this almost every year of every year I’ve sat in this seat, I’m always councilman Spears,” he said. “I’m always having to entertain the thoughts of the citizens of Wilmington, North Carolina, some in the county, some from Brunswick County — hell some from Columbus County — so I don’t agree with that.”

Also proposed are merit increases for council similar to city employees “to keep up with market adjustments.”

Council member Neil Anderson was in support of the stipend increase but questioned the merit aspect.

“I don’t know how you would merit how well a councilman did — or council woman for that matter,” Anderson said.

Haynes agreed and suggested using different language.

“The assessment of the merit of members of council is decided by the voters,” she said. “To me, ‘merit’ is a poor term. The budget process is not going to decide if council members are meritorious or not.”

She suggested future increases be tied to cost of living hikes instead.

Incorporating a merit increase annually is not something that can be tied to future councils and can also be changed at any time, city manager Tony Caudle said

“I can’t vote to approve it with that increase included as it is,” Waddell said.

The first reading of the $351 million budget passed 6-1, despite Waddell’s dissenting vote. The budget accounts for maintaining at least 25% of the city’s general fund as “savings” so the city can respond to disaster recovery needs and also contributes to its top credit ratings.

The total budget is a $100 million increase from fiscal year 2023, with acquisition costs for the Thermo Fisher campus making up the majority of the expanded funds. It does not come with a tax increase. 

Included in the budget is a 3% salary increase and a 2% market adjustment implementation for the city’s 967 positions. An additional six fire department positions will be added, along with up to 12 new hires in the police department.

ALSO: Police budgets increasing across NHC, here’s what the money is going toward

The budget retains the current property tax rate at 39.5 cents per $100 valuation, with 31 cents going to the general fund and 8 cents marked for debt service to support capital improvements. One cent of taxes is also dedicated to affordable housing efforts.

Another $2.2 million is being appropriated to support and grow affordable housing programs and gap financing for eligible developments.

While taxes aren’t going up, some fee increases are incorporated at city-owned facilities, such as $2 more for green fees at the municipal golf course, a 1% increase for stormwater services, and an average $2.18 per month hike for residential recycling and trash services.

Also, it’s the second year of a three-year phased-in jump for parking fees. On-street parking will increase another 50 cents and parking deck fees will go up $2 for the maximum daily amount, from $10 to $12. All-day rates at the Wilmington Convention Center will jump from $13 to $20.

Sales tax revenues are estimated to grow by 6% and budgeted to bring in $45 million for the city, adding to the $147.8 million estimated revenues for next year.

Capital projects are allocated $94.5 million this year, to include $16.2 million into street and sidewalk preservation and maintenance projects. Half of that will go toward street rehab and repaving of 8 to 10 lane miles of city roads.

Additional capital outlay projects are planned for parks and rec, public facilities, stormwater and the golf course.

Another $2 million will be doled out to local nonprofits, human service agencies, civic partnerships, public cultural events, and economic development partnerships.

City council will hold a second reading June 20 for the city budget, which will go into effect July 1.

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