Saturday, June 15, 2024

Wrightsville Beach rundown: CFPUA merger study, employee raises and bike/ped plan

The Town of Wrightsville Beach has agreed to move forward with a consolidation study to determine the feasibility of merging with CFPUA for town utilities. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — With numerous items on the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen agenda last week, three stand out, potentially costing the town over half-a-million dollars.

Having faced water supply issues from high chloride readings and lack of redundancy for town wells, local Wrightsville Beach officials are considering the possibility of merging with the regional water supplier. At last Thursday’s board of aldermen meeting, officials approved a resolution to move forward with a study on this feasibility.

It also approved a pay raise for full-time town employees and plans to apply for a grant to procure an updated bicycle and pedestrian plan.

CFPUA merger study

The town is considering a big move for residents. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s board approved last week applying for state grant funding for a utility merger study with Wrightsville Beach. The town’s board of aldermen approved a resolution to support the study and agreed to pay its share.

Issues with the beach town’s water supply and capacity began in 2019 when well No. 11 went offline, following the presence of GenX contaminants. The town discontinued use of the well and CFPUA gave Wrightsville Beach a three-year discounted deal to replace approximately 20% of town water sourced from well No. 11.

According to town manager Tim Owens, part of that agreement included the consideration of Wrightsville Beach and CFPUA merging. Following multiple discussions around the topic, the board of aldermen approved last week a resolution to support an in-depth study of what that partnership would entail.

READ MORE: Wrightsville Beach and CFPUA arrive at deal to bolster town’s water supply

The consolidation study would examine all aspects from financials and debt service to infrastructure and capital improvement needs.

To conduct the study, CFPUA is applying for a grant on behalf of the town, which would require an equal match from both parties. The estimated cost of the project is $300,000 to $400,000. The Town of Wrightsville Beach and CFPUA would each be responsible for $100,000, if awarded.

If not awarded the grant — which the town will know by mid-summer — a vote will come before the board again for funding half of the merger study out of pocket.

“Currently, we’re set up to receive half of our water supply from CFPUA and they treat 100% of our sewer,” Owens explained. “So, we’re halfway there — well, more than halfway.”

The collaboration would ultimately put CFPUA in charge of Wrightsville Beach’s water operations. It would take a few years for the process to be complete.

“The only way to move forward is to do this,” Mayor Darryl Mills said at Thursday’s meeting.

In conjunction with the possible merger, the town approved a contract with McKim and Creed to secure engineering design work for water system improvements. The town issued a request for qualifications in January and McKim and Creed was the only bid received.

READ MORE: Wrightsville Beach moving on $2M in water projects as high chlorides persist

The necessary water supply for Wrightsville Beach’s roughly 2,700 customers is around 300 million gallons. Seven of its nine town wells have been compromised by high chloride levels.

The $2-million repairs are necessary if the town were to proceed with receiving its utilities from CFPUA. Financing for the engineering design work will come from the American Rescue Plan Act and state direct funds.

Employee pay increase

Aldermen also approved Thursday a 10% pay increase across the board for its full-time employees. Discussions about the move have been ongoing since last month.

The topic was first broached at the aldermen’s budget session when Owens proposed a 5% cost-of-living adjustment and 3% merit increase.

Like other local municipalities, the board discussed difficulties in retaining and recruiting employees. 

“We’ve seen some vacancies and have had to pivot accordingly” Owen said. 

According to Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller, the board had been hearing from nearly all departments about wage increases.

“We’ve given some merit raises and COLA raises, a little bit here and a little there,” Miller said.

Miller added that Wrightsville Beach falls behind neighboring beach towns and Wilmington and New Hanover County’s pay (the latter two just approved raises as well over the last two weeks). 

READ MORE: New Hanover County boosts first responder pay, starting this week

ALSO: City to consider $7.5M pay bump to attract, retain employees

The conversation among the WB aldermen started with increasing wages by 8% and ended at 10%, each recognizing the rate of inflation continues to climb.

“We immediately said, ‘Let’s do it now instead of later,’” Miller said.

The pay increase will go into effect on employees’ next paycheck and will impact roughly 85 positions. 

It will cost $512,000, paid out from the town’s general fund, with approximately $38,000 coming from the water and sewer enterprise fund.

Bike and Pedestrian Plan

The last time the Town of Wrightsville Beach created a bike/ped plan was over a decade ago. The board of aldermen is looking to change that within the coming months.

Thursday it approved a resolution to apply for a North Carolina Department of Transportation grant. The grant offers municipalities with populations under 10,000 the chance to apply for funding for consulting on a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan.

The state would fund 90% of the program and require a 10% match for the town. The estimated planning consultant cost is $40,000, making Wrightsville’s portion roughly $4,000.

“This would be taking an overall broad look on where we can improve, the recommendations and cost estimates,” Owens said.

The 4-mile beach town doesn’t have much space for multi-use paths but is hoping to incorporate more, Owens explained.

“We have connectivity issues from particular parts of town,” he added. “Most of our bike and ped paths consist of ‘The Loop’ or extended shoulders on roadways.”

The John Nesbitt Loop is a 2.45-mile sidewalk trail around Wrightsville Beach, yet bikes are not permitted. The town’s 2013 community transportation plan noted the loop is very limited in width, and also reports the need for improved bike lanes and bicycle/pedestrian bridge crossings.

Owens added New Hanover County’s referendum for a quarter-cent sales tax increase is intended to help fund new multi-use paths, along with public transportation and rail realignment efforts. 

“If we decide to implement some things, there could be an opportunity to tap into that resource,” Owens told aldermen at the meeting.

READ MORE: Voters to decide on sales tax increase for Wave Transit, new trails in next election

Grant applications are due by May 9 and awards will be announced in August. If the town receives the grant, its new strategy would need to be completed within 12 months.

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