Tuesday, February 27, 2024

2022 Primary Election: Harry Knight runs for NHC Board of Commissioners

Harry Knight, a Republican, is running for one of two seats on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY ⁠— Harry Knight, a Republican, is running for one of two seats on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. 

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate running in local elections in the tri-county region. The paywall is dropped on profiles to help voters make informed decisions ahead of casting their ballots.

Primary Election Day is May 17. Voters will choose which candidates from their registered party they want to move forward in the formal election. Those who are registered as unaffiliated can choose which party’s primary they want to vote in.

Knight’s stances on issues are discussed below. All answers are included in full and the candidate’s opinions and statements are not a reflection of Port City Daily. Responses are edited only for grammar, spelling and clarity.

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Port City Daily (PCD): What is your top priority and how would you address it?

Harry Knight (HK): There are several priorities that all need addressed:

Getting our budget back in line with revenue to avoid facing a mandatory increase in taxes. Last year we effectively doubled our revenue by the amount of state and federal grants coming into the county from COVID relief funds. Despite that large increase in funding, our commission inappropriately raised our taxes (didn’t go to a revenue-neutral tax rate after property evaluations), which I publicly opposed during the commissioners’ approval meeting last year. 

We must insure that the extra funding is not being allocated to ongoing programs but to capital improvement (one time) projects to prevent a budget shortfall in a couple years necessitating a mandatory tax rate increase. We need to walk our property tax rate back down to the revenue-neutral rate. Our natural economic development in NHC gives us 10%-15% increase in revenue annually without raising property tax rates.  That level should be sufficient to operate NHC. Our citizens live on a budget, likely without a 10%-plus annual increase; NHC needs to do the same.

Our infrastructure needs to be accelerated to meet our population growth.  The most visible of this is our congested traffic problem. We must work with the state to plan and obtain funding to elevate traffic congestion at our major intersections and move the CSX railway lines out of downtown Wilmington to reduce that interference and better support our growing port. NHC County doesn’t directly fund any of these items as they are owned by the state or the municipalities but the county has responsibility to organize and advocate for priority by our state legislators to get this done.

Affordable housing, which is talked about in a question below.

PCD: What improvements need to be made to public transportation in New Hanover County? Should a quarter-cent sales tax increase pass, would you support a resolution to levy the tax beginning in 2023? Should a quarter-cent sales tax increase not pass, what would be the next best course of action?

HK: Our public transportation system (Wave) needs to be redesigned to work for Wilmington/New Hanover County not NYC. Two years ago the county and municipalities declined to increase funding to Wave due to the system costing too much and providing too little service. Nothing has substantially changed. However, we have a new Wave director and Wave Board and we should give them a change to make the needed improvements. Wave Transient is financially solvent through the next two years at a minimum, and we should relook at Wave funding a year from now, after giving the director and board a chance to make needed changes

I am not in favor of the quarter-cent tax increase. With the current costs of goods (inflation) our citizens are struggling to pay for everyday items now. Increasing taxes would only make that worse. If the tax increase passes, I would use it to move the CSX Railway (helping the port and improving traffic downtown), start discussions on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (10 year working life remains) and a small amount to improve walking/biking paths already planned. No money to Wave until at least a year from now, after they have had a chance to make recommendations to improve the system.

PCD: What are your thoughts on the affordable housing crisis in New Hanover County? Is $15 million over five years adequate? How should that money be leveraged? What else needs to be done?

HK: Over the last two years, the rest of the country has discovered what we already know: NHC is the best county in the country to live. If you look at any data-collecting service monitoring, you will find we are either #1 or #2 location in the country to move to. That has increased our demand for housing by about 50%. 

In that same time period, our available inventory of residential housing available for sale has plummeted. On any given normal week we would have roughly 13,500 homes listed for sale, as of this week that inventory is 3,800 homes, a 70% reduction in inventory. With larger demand and decreased supply our housing prices went up about 20% just last year.

The Cape Fear region’s current median residential property price is $339,000, up from $295,000 last year. We need to find ways to incentivize builders to construct homes at an affordable price point, such as helping with the infrastructure cost while insuring the needed infrastructure is actually in place to support that population growth. Failure to do so will drive housing prices out of the range of our hard-working, middle-class citizens. Owning a home is part of the American dream and it should stay that way. $15M is a good start but it must be spent wisely not just given away to developers that over promise and under deliver.

PCD: New Hanover County is creating an anti-violence department and spending millions each year to launch it. What are your thoughts on the action plan?

HK: I’m all in for a hand up to help our disadvantaged population improve their lives through programs such domestic violence shelters, rehabilitation programs, and education programs helping citizens get high school degrees, GEDs and technical training, so that they become productive members of society and can enjoy living in our great community while contributing to back to that community. The anti-violence department is a good start, but we need to monitor closely to ensure we are getting the results we are expecting.

At the same time, we have an increasingly lawless faction within NHC that needs to be dealt with. You cannot have safe communities and safe schools without safe streets. Violent offenders and repeat offenders need to be dealt with as such through our LEOs and courts. Fortunately, we don’t seem to have the court system revolving door for offenders we are seeing in other cities our size, but we need to be vigilant that doesn’t become the case 

PCD: In what ways does New Hanover County need to manage population growth? Are there new ideas you would bring to the table?

HK: As discussed above NHC has seen about a 50% increase in demand for housing and barring a national or worldwide catastrophe that is not going to change in the next several years because we live in the greatest county in the country. It is a reality we need to acknowledge and deal with. Failure to acknowledge and deal with it will result in significantly escalating housing (rent) prices beyond what we are seeing today. At a median house price of $339,000, housing is barely affordable in NHC now for our hard-working middle-class citizens, and we should do nothing that makes that worse.  

Wave Transient needs modified to fit NHC not NYC to help lessen traffic without undue burden on the tax payers. We literally have $600,000 buses running around with an average of 10 riders. That is completely unacceptable and must change.

We need to find ways to build affordable housing, including the infrastructure necessary to support that population growth. At the end of the day, you cannot have affordable housing if you do not have housing.

I will take no purposeful action that inappropriately increases our working class citizens’ cost of living (housing).

PCD: How well do you think the county balances development with “livability” (i.e. moderated traffic, preserved green space, etc.)?

HK: The county has failed to keep up with population growth, and this is most notable with the traffic in and around NHC. Unfortunately, NHC does not directly control the funding or installation of roads (they are either state or municipality owned, NHC doesn’t own any roads with some small exceptions), which means we need to work directly with our state legislatures to get the needed plans prioritized and funding established to fix our traffic issues and keep up with population growth in the future

NHC has done a decent job over the last several years, along with the municipalities, establishing and maintain tree canopy and green space. A recent example is the finalization of the purchase Freedom Park by Carolina Beach. This preserves a natural treasure not suitable for development for our citizens and visitors to enjoy for generations to come.

PCD: What role do commissioners need to play in protecting the local environment and coasts? 

HK: The commissioners role is critical in determining use of property via the conditional zoning request system, which allows them to control the types of buildings and processes happening around the Cape Fear region. Protecting our coast is one of the most important aspects of being a commissioner. I’ve seen the negative effects of inappropriate budgets and environmental activism as a member of the Port Beach and Waterway Authority impact our ability to nourish and maintain our beaches.

Another good example is the Battleship Point project currently under consideration.  I’ve seen several people advocate for keeping that particular parcel as industrial usage only and building a manufacturing facility there. Whether you believe sea level rise in 50 years will flood that parcel or not, the fact is that parcel periodically floods today. 

As a former Environmental Health and Safety Manager putting chemicals and other components necessary to operate a manufacturing facility at that location would be an environmental hazard from that flooding today, not maybe in 50 years — right now, today. I would be a hard-no on a manufacturing facility at that location.

As a former Environmental Health and Safety Manager for the nuclear industry, I understand environmental issues and will put that vast experience to work for you.

PCD: What do you think of the county’s supplemental funding for the school district?

HK: I agree that keeping our teachers paid well is fundamental in keeping good teachers in the county. That statement is completely predicted on those teachers are in the class room teaching. Over the last two years, we have seen our students unnecessary suffer devastating setbacks in education under the false premise of protecting adults over those children. Our children are our future and should be treated as such, even if that means adults take more risk. We, the adults, should bear that burden not the children. Our schools stay open with students in the class room in order to get that funding.

Our treatment of supplemental school staff, such as teachers aids, school bus drivers and etc., needs to improve as well. The schools cannot function without those supporting roles

Approximately half of the NHC budget goes to funding our schools. While the commission cannot directly tell the school board how to operate (they are independently elected officials in their own right), having the power of the check book is a fantastic tool to ensure we get the results that are best for our children

PCD: What do you think of the current tax rates? How would you balance taxes with identifying funding for top-of-mind issues?

HK: As I stated in my public comments almost a year ago, our commissioners inappropriately increased our effective tax rate despite the massive influx of revenue from outside sources. Our tax rate needs to be walked back to the revenue-neutral rate it should have been approved for in the first place over the next couple budget cycles

Appropriately identifying and adequately funding programs is completely dependent on being transparent on how the money is generated and spent. Our citizens should be able to easily recognize what the spend was last year versus the budget for this year. You simply cannot do that with how our budgets are currently presented. That is simply unacceptable. As I stated during my public dissent of the budget, I would have been fired from previous management positions for presenting a budget in the format used by NHC and rightly so.

Making the budget so that average NHC citizens can understand where the money is going starts day one on my election.

PCD: Is there an additional issue or issues you think need(s) to be addressed during your term, should you win?

HK: The sale of the hospital and its trust fund: If COVID taught us anything over the last two years, it is we do not want politicians in charge of our health care. Your health care is between you and your doctor, not some government bureaucrat.  Getting the hospital out of the control of politicians is and always was the right answer.

With that said, we need to continue to monitor the process of the board and committee that controls the flow of funds coming from the hospital trust fund. That fund was specifically agreed to in the sales agreement and approved by the N.C. Attorney General, with required conditions, as required by law in N.C. 

In general, that fund management mechanism has some good things, such as requiring the base funding to remain intact and requiring the base fund to grow with inflation ensuring its economic impact remains relatively consistent. It has some restrictions I don’t like, such as no ability to spend the funding on traditional infrastructure. Since it is new and just now being implemented, maybe funding from the trust can be used for other items in our normal budget freeing up funding for things such as infrastructure. We will have to monitor and see. 

The NHC Commission does not directly control this fund and has no ability to change the management scheme on their own authority. If that becomes necessary, it would likely take legislative action to make that change

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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