Thursday, July 25, 2024

‘Most irresponsible budget I’ve seen presented’: Last-minute changes rejected as board vote splits

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield discusses his concerns with the FY25 budget on June 17, 2024. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County passed a budget for the next fiscal year with many concerned about its funding cuts, including some commissioners.

READ MORE: City council budget musters past first reading, questions remain on several line items

The 3-2 vote, with commissioners Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple dissenting, came after extensive commentary from the two commissioners on their disapproval of the budget. 

Causes cited for this year’s budget changes include lagging property tax revenue  compared with inflation, and increased budgetary needs from New Hanover County Schools and the sheriff’s department. The former is facing a $20 million shortfall due to expiring Covid-19 relief dollars and declining enrollment, while the latter is short-staffed, resulting in more paid overtime hours that created an $18.4 million budget deficit for the department.

The only increased fees for residents include stormwater costs, which are increasing 8.7% to $6.14, resulting in an extra 49 cents per residential unit each month.

Commissioners have chosen not to increase taxes nor pull from the $300 million Revenue Stabilization Fund, both unpopular with the board’s Republican majority, to balance the budget. Instead, the county is cutting expenses in various departments by 8%.

“In my 16 years on this board, this is the most irresponsible budget I’ve seen presented,” Barfield said. 

Both Barfield and Zapple took issue with the county not using the revenue stabilization fund created by the 2020 sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant. The fund — which can be used for emergency response, debt relief, and tax or fee stabilization — could have been used for non-profit programs and school funding cut out in the new budget. 

Barfield also denounced the county’s decision to cut funding for Port City United, the county’s 2022 anti-violence initiative that included a call center, school-based mentors and crisis-intervention mediators. The latter prong has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after two employees were arrested; Stephen Barnett has been charged with accessory to attempted murder while on the job and Courtney McNeil has 16 drug charges and one firearm charge. 

Barfield noted New Hanover County is the third wealthiest county in the state and has resources to provide for Port City United. 

Community members who spoke out at the meeting had issues with the budget mainly concerning school funding cuts and Port City United.

Schools

New Hanover County Schools was granted roughly $9.5 million in funding following its $10.1 million request last month to cover half of its deficit. 

NHCS has to to cut 279 employees, though 170 were part of Covid-19 relief dollars expiring this year; employees in these positions were told about the limited funding upon being hired. The district is relying on attrition — employees leaving naturally without the district filling their positions — to reach the 279 benchmark. 

County staff prepared a proposal in April that would give the schools an additional $5.5 million to the schools’ $94 million, in order to keep 76 of the remaining 110 positions on the chopping block: 15 teachers, six AIG teachers, eight enhancement teachers and 47 teacher assistants. The additional $4 million will go toward maintaining the district’s 12 pre-K classrooms in place and support NHCS’ 61 school resource officers, 47 school nurses and 35 school-based mental-health therapists.

NHCS won’t receive any capital funding this year as a result of the increased operating allocation.

Roughly 10 residents signed up to speak in support of increased funding for the schools, including NHC board of education candidate Tim Merrick.

“I know we’re paying our sheriffs a bunch more money this year because we don’t have enough sheriffs and they’re going to be working overtime; our teachers have been given additional duties and they are not being given overtime,” Merrick said. 

Other residents felt their pleas to the board were not acknowledged.

“This underfunding is a clear signal that the needs of our most vulnerable students are being ignored,” Leo Hussein, chapter organizer of grassroots political organization Hanover for All, said. 

Commissioner Zapple addressed some of the criticisms. 

“In the public commentary that’s out there, there’s a sense that we are not hearing you,” he said. “Boy are we hearing you, and the entire public out there, and we’re responding and responding with, I believe, significant funding for our school systems to keep our children safe.”

Port City United

Other residents expressed support for Port City United, highlighting community efforts — including mental health resources, food, housing, help with finding jobs, resources for recently incarcerated people and youth outreach.

“If you were to listen to the news, you would think that PCU is being run by a bunch of gang members and thugs, you would also think that maybe it’s time to start and do something different,” said Pastor Robert Campbell of New Beginnings Christian Church.

The county hired some employees with gang-affiliations for its mediation and outreach team, particularly the violence interruptors. This is part of the Cure Violence model that PCU is based off of, which utilizes people with street credit to go into underserved areas of the community in attempt to de-escalate violence before it reaches gunplay.

“But I think that PCU was a bold step to a systematic problem that has been impacting our community for generations,” Campbell continued.

The main opponents for PCU are commissioners LeAnn Pierce and Dane Scalise. Scalie claimed a PCU employee threatened him after a commissioners meeting last month, due to the commissioners’ support for shuttering the program.

Pierce indicated concern over the effectiveness of the program and money allocated to it. The county has funded it for $10 million over the last two years, after dedicating $40 million in four years.

“I know that PCU has done some really good things, I question the job title of violence interrupter,” Pierce said. “I have to ask myself, ‘What is the training for that person? What is the certification?When I think of a violence interrupter, I think of police, people who’ve undergone certification and training and a lot of psychological evaluations for how to address different situations.”

Non-County Agency Funding

Non-county agencies — organizations determined by the county to deliver direct services or relief instead of redistributing funds, including Vigilant Hope Inc., A Safe Place Inc. and Feast Down East Inc. — also faced funding cuts.

The non-county agency funding committee is charged with putting together a recommendation for allocation to the various organizations that apply each year. 

Agencies must be established as an incorporated non-profit for at least two years to apply, scored and ranked by the county, based on factors such as alignment with county goals and anticipated community impact. County funding for agencies goes toward expenses, program supplies, training, travel/mileage, printing, rent, utilities and other occupancy costs, and technology, along with some program costs and salaries directly related to the agency’s programming.

The committee received 70 applications this year — a record number according to committee member Randy Reeves  — compared with an average of 40 in previous years. To accommodate the influx of applicants, the committee suggested the commissioners provide $2.5 million total to the agencies, up $900,000 from last year’s amount. 

This differed from county staff’s recommendation: provide the same $1.6 million, to be spread thinner across the agencies. 

Zapple proposed plans to make smaller budget cuts in other places to provide more funding for non-county nonprofit agencies and to postpone the final budget vote until later this month, but neither gained support from other board members.

“[The] budget, the way it sits now, is going to do some harm throughout our community because of the funding that’s not there,” Zapple said.

Barfield expressed frustration to the committee that local agencies did not receive more funding through the New Hanover Community Endowment, created from the hospital sale to supplement community initiatives. The commissioners pointed out that the organizations that got the most money from the endowment’s last cycle in 2023 were higher education institutions and K-12 schools. 

“The initial goal was that there’ll be more resources to local nonprofits and grassroots that are doing the real work in our community to expand their capacity,” Barfield said. “I’m hoping that as they retool their ‘ship with endowment, they’ll figure that part out, just like you want to figure things out and help individuals in our community that need help the most.”

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated non-county agencies had to be established for three years to receive funding; the correct number is two years. The previous version also stated the stormwater fees were increasing by $6.14; it is actually increasing 49 cents to $6.14 total. PCD regrets the errors.]


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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