WILMINGTON — As growth in Wilmington becomes limited geographically, the city is taking steps to expand its border, and its tax base.
City council unanimously approved Tuesday the addition of a third full-time deputy city manager. This makes two vacant deputy manager positions, one being left open when Tony Caudle took over as city manager in September.
Mayor Bill Saffo said at the meeting he wants a third position to focus on growth outside the incorporated city limits.
“For example, voluntary annexations,” Saffo said. “I would like someone to be looking for ways to be able to expand our city limits and maybe work with private property owners near the city that may want to voluntarily bring their properties into the city.”
The population of the incorporated 50 square miles of the city is 120,194, with an annual 0.9% growth rate. Comparatively, the unincorporated areas of the county are growing at an average of 1.3% annually. Saffo said, in general, growth is not as imminent as the public may think in Wilmington proper. A large amount of the development is happening outside the city limits.
“If you want to continue to grow your tax base at some level, we’re going to have to figure out ways to grow the city,” the mayor said. “We have a lot of elderly citizens that could be pushed out with higher tax rates.”
Councilmember Charles Rivenbark voiced his support of redeveloping vacant establishments into mixed-use properties, with varying building types and transportation methods, within existing neighborhoods. He called it “smart growth.”
“When these developers come along and want to buy a block of dilapidated whatever, we need to be their partners in this thing,” Rivenbark said.
Economic development will be a key responsibility of the third deputy city manager’s role, along with planning for the future of downtown, collaborating on the major rail realignment project and overseeing public safety, including fire and emergency management services.
The position will improve efficiency, communication and project management, according to Caudle. This will also allow for the restructuring of all deputy managers’ responsibilities moving forward, including Thom Moton, who has served as a deputy city manager since 2018. Deputy city managers oversee everything from internal affairs to community services, planning and development to public safety, and more.
Caudle will retain oversight of the police department, as is required of his position per the city ordinance. He also oversees legislative affairs, public information and WAVE Transit.
A second deputy city manager was added in June 2015, but Caudle said the workload has grown over the last six-and-a-half years to warrant the extra hands, especially with the city’s new programs. Caudle specifically was referring to transportation and park bond projects, the Rise Together Initiative and the upcoming strategic plan. The current plan requires updating, but was stalled in 2020 due to the pandemic and related social distancing issues.
Funding for the third deputy position for the remaining fiscal year, ending June 30, 2022, will come from the city’s salary savings in its general fund. The savings exists from when Caudle left his 13-year position as deputy city manager to serve as interim city manager in June 2021. Caudle was officially appointed city manager following Sterling Cheatham’s retirement.
City human resources director Al Ragland and city finance director Jennifer Maready stepped up to share duties as interim deputy managers once Caudle took over his new position. Ragland and Maready will be relieved from their interim job duties once two deputy managers are hired.
Caudle said, based on the city’s succession plan, staff would first look internally for candidates before opening the position to outside contenders. But council member Kevin Spears raised concerns about limiting the potential talent pool and cautioned against that becoming the standard for the city.
“Don’t you think we should just open it up in the beginning and see what we get?” he asked. “How do we know what’s out there; how do we know if we are improving, as a city and an organization if we’re not even testing the waters?”
Rivenbark didn’t think looking outside current employees would be violating a succession plan.
“You came from somewhere else; Al [Ragland] did; Jennifer [Maready] did,” he pointed out. “There is a lot of talent out there and a lot of talent within the confines of the city staff, but I don’t think that’s violating anything. If you’re that narrow on it sometimes you limit yourself to what’s out there.”
Currently, neither of the two open deputy city manager positions are listed on the city’s job website. City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron confirmed the positions will be open to both internal and external candidates.
All deputy city manager positions start at $134,836.
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