CAROLINA BEACH — Carolina Beach’s spending habits are beginning to catch up with them and the state is concerned about the town’s dwindling savings. At the same time, residents of the beach town continue to request more expensive projects.
Taxes in Carolina Beach have not seen an increase since 2011 and in 2017 the town actually reduced its tax rate — but continued to fund new capital projects. In the most basic sense of economics, the more services provided the more tax rates should increase, but that is not the case in Carolina Beach.
So, how did Carolina Beach end up in this financial position?
Nearly $200,000 to change the color of a fence
This year alone has seen hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on projects that were more expensive than originally planned.
One of the most recent examples comes in the form of a fence.
The Island Greenway project has been in the works for years and when it was first approved, the Town Council opted to go with a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire — unsightly to some, but affordable.
Soon after the first of the chain-link fence was installed, neighbors who happened to have a view of the greenway began emailing council members and Mayor Joe Benson complaining — that was all it took.
Benson made the decision to stop the project’s construction of the fence by telling the Town Manager at the time Michael Cramer to halt the project until council could discuss it further.
Ultimately, the council approved a taller black chain-link fence and removed the barbed wire, spending an additional $176,000.
Related: Carolina Beach approves new fencing option that will cost taxpayers additional $176k
During a public hearing, residents spoke both in favor of the change and opposing the spending. Unsurprisingly, residents who have homes that directly view the fence voiced their support of the most expensive options — asking taxpayers to foot the bill to protect their view.
The project was approved unanimously, however, not everyone was excited to see the general fund balance once again, depleted.
“We’ve been addressing how we need to save our general fund … this is looking like anywhere from 6-10-percent out of our General Fund to pay for this … I personally think we need to focus on other things,” Councilman JoDan Garza said.
A lake dredging debacle
Over the past few years, the Town of Carolina Beach has invested in a lake dredging project that was designed to increase the lake capacity for stormwater.
The task, seemingly simple in theory, has dragged on after the town ran afoul of the federal government by dumbing lake dredging spoils on military property without proper authorization.
Further complications from soil testing found arsenic present in the spoils, making disposal more difficult.
Initially, the project was approximated to cost $3 million, in July the town had spent about $1.4 million of that money and about the same amount left to complete the project, however, Cramer estimated additional costs could top $1 million more.
During a town workshop, Cramer made the recommendation to cut their losses, leave the lake as i,t and spend the remaining funds on other projects — council did not want to do that. Instead, council voted to resume the project over summer.
Related: Lake dredging will resume in Carolina Beach, additional costs could top $1 million
Lowering taxes, increasing services
The tax rate in Carolina Beach has not seen an increase since Fiscal Year 2011-2012 and in Fiscal Year 2017, it saw a drop. In 2011, the tax rate was .175, then it was increased to .235 — in 2017 it was reduced to .225.
The pattern of a decreasing fund balance caught the eye of the State and Local Government Finance Division and the Local Government Commission. Last month a Certified Public Accountant for the division reached out in a letter to the town notifying it of its concerns.
Increasing costs for visitors
In an attempt to keep taxes lower, the town also voted on several increases that will directly impact visitors to the beach town.
Parking costs increased, raising both hourly and daily maximums, and Freeman Park passes also saw price increases.
The hours of enforcement for parking was also extended in an attempt to get more money out of visitors to the island — parking in neighboring Kure Beach is free.
Annual visitor parking passes saw a price hike as did the town’s marina fees — but the town is still struggling to increase its fund balance.
Residents wanting more
Not only does the town need to keep up with projects it has already committed to, residents of the town also wanted new projects.
As seen in a recent impromptu survey in a Carolina Beach locals social media page, there are plenty of ‘wants’ from residents. According to the survey, the top ten issues were:
10 – Golf cart issues
9 – Remove the Harris Teeter sign
8 – Art beautification
7 – Doing something with Federal Point Mall
6 – No filling or building on swampland
5 – Crackdown on slumlord renters
4 – Crosswalk issues
3 – More trees
2 – Multi-use sidewalks
1 – Bury electrical lines
The number one request was to bury electrical lines, a cost-prohibitive project. Sidewalks, crosswalks, additional trees, and art beautification all cost money as well.
Councilwoman LeAnne Pierce and Councilman Steve Shuttleworth weighed in on the conversations on social media.
“Number 1 is a money issue. Not impossible but expensive. Numbers two, three, four, and 10 are issues that are top priority for Council and currently being worked on diligently. Number seven is in the process. Numbers five and nine are private property issues which can be tough. We do have code enforcement which I have called several times to address some of the issues that I have seen on certain properties. You can also report issues to code enforcement. Number six falls under local, state and fed permitting. We can certainly look at how locally we could address this issue. Number eight, very interesting. I haven’t thought much about that except for some of the renderings I have seen of the boardwalk area of possibly painting fire hydrants and electrical boxes which would be very cool,” Pierce said.
She also recommended these ideas make their way into the town’s new Land Use Plan that is being developed.
Shuttleworth echoed this sentiment and said, “I enjoyed reading them all over the past several days. No surprise to me how engaged, passionate and creative our community is. I agree with LeAnn these would be great additions to the Land Use Plan. As stated several of these are currently in the works or part of ongoing projects. Specifically some of the sidewalks, street crossings and bike trails. Others such as the public art or light pole painting maybe low hanging fruit that could be done with little funding but lots of local support. Great stuff.”
How the town plans to raise its general fund balance is still not yet known, but generally speaking, raising taxes or cutting services are the main ways of growing a fund balance.
Michael Praats can be reached at Michael.P@localvoicemedia.com