WILMINGTON — North Carolina now has a budget for the first time in three years, and it includes significant benefits for the Cape Fear region.
With Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature on the docket as of last Thursday, Wilmington nonprofits secured grants; lawmakers committed substantial investments to proactive approaches to flooding and natural disasters; and UNCW and New Hanover County Schools received funding to further the area’s educational opportunities. (Check back with Port City Daily throughout the week for more on the latter.)
“This is a really good budget for the city,” said Tony McEwen, Wilmington’s assistant to the city manager for legislative affairs.
Perhaps most notably for the region as a whole, the budget incorporates a “vast majority” of spending priorities penned by the Eastern NC Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Alliance, an effort spearheaded by Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Pender County Board of Commissioners Chairman George Brown. The leaders created the alliance and brought on 60 other elected officials in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
McEwen said “well over $100 million” was included in the budget based on the alliance’s requests. That includes $20 million for a Flood Resilience Blueprint to serve as a statewide flood risk reduction strategy and $15 million for grants to ensure transportation infrastructure can hold up against natural disasters.
Money will trickle down to help smaller local governments in the region receive technical assistance on flood resilience projects. A meeting is planned for the alliance in Goldsboro early next month to break down the impacts related to flood resilience.
“There’s not in it a pot of money that’s coming to Wilmington. It’s coming to the entire eastern part of the state, and we’ll overall benefit from it,” McEwen said. “So if the folks upstream — Columbus County, Duplin, wherever — if they get it right, if it helps them, it helps us downstream.”
Other highlights in the budget include:
$750,000 for Coastal Horizons’ Quick Response Team. Launched in 2018, the program aims to save lives by connecting overdose survivors with peer support specialists and licensed therapists. About 12 people are connected to treatment monthly, but as of late, the average has risen to 18 or 20 people, due to a spike in drug abuse throughout the pandemic.
Buffy Taylor, the Quick Response Team supervisor, said they aren’t clear yet on the parameters of the funding but are excited about the allocation.
“What we do know is that the Quick Response Team would be able to continue to provide essential services to overdose survivors and their families with these funds,” Taylor said. “The Quick Response Team will be able to provide intentional outreach by working with our community partners to continue to fast track overdose survivors to treatment.”
$250,000 for Wilmington’s rail realignment studies. Conducted by the City of Wilmington with the Federal Railroad Administration, this major project will result in a new route for rail that eliminates the existing intersections with roadways.
FRA grants are covering the federally required environmental review, expected to be complete by November 2022, as well as up to 30% of the engineering work, a design benchmark to be met by mid-2023.
“The funds in the state budget will allow further study to take place to further develop and vet an understanding across stakeholders regarding how the project would be folded into the existing freight rail network in southeastern North Carolina, i.e. how it would exist as a part of the existing commercial rail enterprise,” Aubrey Parsley, the city’s director of rail realignment, said in a statement. “These studies would provide important insights to resource agencies and position the Rail Realignment Project to be highly competitive for additional future funding.”
Parsley said the goal is to fully develop the environmental, engineering, and economic concept for the project by late 2023.
$283.8 million for the forthcoming Wilmington Harbor enhancement. To keep up with demand through the harbor, a project is proposed to deepen the navigational channel from 42 to 47 feet, which will grant larger vessels access to the Port. The Water Resources and Development Act of 2020 authorized the estimated $834-million project. This latest contribution in the budget will go into a reserve, available upon an act of appropriation by the General Assembly.
N.C. Ports vice president of administration and external affairs Laura Blair said the state allocation makes up the anticipated non-federal share of construction funds and “sends a strong signal to our customers and industry partners that the State of North Carolina supports our work and is a partner in ensuring North Carolina Ports remains the competitive, choice East Coast port.”
“The Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project will result in a more efficient channel, attract more import and export business, help mitigate East Coast congestion, and help North Carolina Ports become an even stronger player in this competitive landscape,” Blair said.
$750,000 for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. This grant will help with the food bank’s upcoming major project. Their new 30,000-square-foot warehouse on Greenfield Street breaks ground this spring.
“The new facility will increase capacity to address urgent food insecurity, build solutions for long-term hunger relief, and allow us to be more efficient during critical disaster response,” Beth Gaglione, the Wilmington Branch director of the Food Bank, said. “We look forward to having a larger presence in the Wilmington community and inviting folks into our new space in the near future.”
$30 million to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for capital improvements. The staff at CFPUA is researching how to use these funds and will pitch recommendations to its board at an upcoming meeting, according to a press release.
$210,000 for a grant to New Hanover Regional Medical Center for community paramedicine. Through this program, the hospital brings medical services to patients in their homes.
The budget also includes language to hold the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization harmless for the Map Act. The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 the act was unconstitutional, as it prevented property owners from developing where future highways were planned, without any compensation.
“We had indemnification prior to the Map Act being repealed,” McEwen explained. “We were kind of left in limbo about whether or not we were going to have those new protections that were promised … when the MPO filed transportation corridor maps.”
The passage of the budget assures that the N.C. Department of Transportation will take on any action arising out of the Hampstead Bypass and the Military Cutoff Road and the Martin Luther King/Kerr Avenue projects.
McEwen also suggested the city found success with items not included in the final budget. The city advocated for the removal of several proposed provisions written into the early draft that would have restricted local governments’ authority. Mayor Saffo sent a letter to Gov. Cooper asking for help striking one item that would have prevented local governments from enacting stormwater regulations beyond what is federally and state required.
Another item would have ended the city’s ability to enact short-term rental regulations. The North Carolina Court of Appeals is currently judging if Wilmington was in violation of the law when it implemented rental restrictions.
“We thought that the court should be able to speak on the matter and not the legislature stepping in while the court was actively considering something,” McEwen said.
An older version of the budget also would have ended local governments’ ability to enact tree ordinances. The City of Wilmington’s ordinance would have been grandfathered in, but such language may have presented a challenge when making amendments.
All three of the proposed policies were removed in the time the governor and legislative leaders were negotiating the compromise budget behind closed doors.
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