Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Not without debate, county moves forward with transit sales tax on November ballot

Commissioners voted 3-2 Monday for voters to decide this election year if a quarter-cent transportation tax should be put in place to support projects, such as Wave funding, more bike paths and safer crosswalks, as well as rail realignment. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Let the voters decide or wait until the next election cycle to flesh out a more detailed plan? 

Those two lines of thinking dominated the New Hanover County Commissioners’ debate Monday afternoon over whether a referendum for a quarter-cent transportation sales tax should be added to the November ballot. It would raise the sales tax from 7% to 7.25% in the county, applicable to goods except for groceries, gas and prescriptions.

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By the end of the hour-long public hearing, which drew out less than a dozen people speaking for and against the tax, the board of commissioners voted 3-2 to move forward, with Rob Zapple and Deb Hays dissenting.

The road to get the referendum on the ballot has been bumpy. In December an ad hoc committee with commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfiled, as well as three city councilors, expressed unanimous support for the referendum this election year. By February’s joint meeting with the city, Zapple informed city leadership some “internal debate” was taking place and he didn’t have confidence they could come to a unanimous agreement.

The following month Julia Olson-Boseman cast the dissenting vote to direct staff to prepare for putting the tax increase on the ballot, including scheduling the state-required public hearing. By Monday’s open session, the tables had turned yet again. Olson-Boseman, Barfield and Bill Rivenbark supported letting the voters decide on the increase, while Zapple and Hays backpedaled on the referendum being included this election year. 

Both said more time was needed to educate the community about the transportation plan that would bring in $140 million over 10 years. They also vied to get more of the business community’s support, specifically from the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, which Zapple said they have traditionally done in the past.

Commissioner Barfield disagreed. Over a decade ago, he and former commissioner Jason Thompson led efforts on a quarter-cent sales tax referendum to support “quality-of-life initiatives,” including parks and gardens.

“There was no other outside organization to help us,” Barfield said. “It was the county and this leadership that carried the freight and carried the weight.”

He said the quarter-cent tax increase was projected at the time to cull $7 million a year. “It’s now bringing over $14 million a year to our county,” Barfield said. 

Natale English, president and CEO of the chamber, spoke at the hearing and stressed how an increased tax right now would further economic vulnerability among individuals already dealing with “rising interest rates, high gas prices and inflation.” Adding to her concerns was a lax plan presented to the chamber board on how funds would be spent.

“We aren’t saying no. We’re saying no for now,” English clarified. “We propose that the chamber work with the county and the city to develop and implement public input and detailed plans and a longer education plan leading to the potential of a more successful outcome in 2024.”

Initial framework of the funding includes approximately $56 million going toward bike and pedestrian paths, with $23 million benefitting rail realignment efforts, essentially moving freight paths to help decongest roads. The sticking point for many during Monday’s meeting regarded the bulk of the money — $65 million — to fund Wave Transit.

“I’ve never seen a bus with more than six people on it,” resident Neal Shulman said at the public hearing.

Skip Watkins, former New Hanover County commissioner, also spoke against the move. While he agreed a quarter-cent sales increase would shift some of the tax burden to the county’s visitors, it wasn’t reason enough to move forward.

“It’s my true belief that the citizens in New Hanover County would feel the biggest bite,” Watkins said, before calling Wave an “historically inefficient organization.”

The public transit system has gone through ups and downs over the last few years. The city and county paid $226,000 to TransPro consulting firm to help cut costs and stabilize Wave in 2020, when it was facing dwindling finances and ridership loss. Since, Wave has been rebuilt with a new board and executive director.

“Marie Parker has done an outstanding job,” commissioner Deb Hays praised at the public hearing. 

Parker was hired in December 2020 and has made route changes, as well as instituted RideMICRO — a rideshare-style public transportation program that allows travelers to track their requested rides through an app. The executive director’s efforts were recently recognized at the statewide public transit authority conference last month, wherein Wave took home top honors.

Yet, Hays — who also serves as the commissioner representative on the Wave board — said the public transit system’s recent upturns and successes need more time to impress upon citizens.

According to Wave’s operational statistics report for March, the transit system is down from 2019 over 44% in fixed route passenger trips  — which includes bus, UNCW and trolley passengers. Its RideMICRO program has served 677 rides since launching last fall. 

Wave currently operates with a $9.5-million budget, and received $1.5 million from the City of Wilmington and $526,016 from the county in 2022. It also will receive $700,000 annually over five years in supplemental federal funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Around $12 million was allocated to the transit system in Covid-19 relief funds.

Just in February, Parker unveiled plans to increase frequency on 30% of its fixed routes.

“She is working very hard,” Hays said of the executive director, “to really make it the public transit system that we need to be a viable part of our community. I believe in what she’s doing out there. I’m so impressed with micro transit and the potential that has — it literally just launched in October. But I feel like we need to have some more time to have those positives ring loud and clear.”

For as many that spoke against the tax, citizens and Wave mobility manager Brianna D’Itri lauded its necessity and funding. She specifically noted it removes obstacles of transportation for some residents in the community, such as those who cannot afford a car or even drive.

Teresa Densmore pointed to the county’s 28,000 visually impaired people — “that’s a whole little city,” she said — who would benefit from improved services.

“I’ve only been blind for a few years now, and yet I can’t cross the streets or use a lot of facilities,” she said.

Part of the money could be used to improve and create safer crosswalks and pathways that connect to Wave routes.

“No one likes taxes … neither do I,” Densmore said, “but I wholeheartedly endorse this tax. I would like to see public transportation really expand so it meets everyone’s needs.”

“New shelters and amenities for passengers will contribute to our image as both a caring and economically viable community,” former city council member Laura Padgett told commissioners.

New Yorker Christine Conry added that when she moved to Wilmington 12 years ago her first question was: “Why do all these cars only have one person in them?” She spoke out in support of the system’s benefit to reduce emissions but also relieve congestion on roadways, noting up North it’s a functional part of everyday life.

“We took it high school, to work,” she said, “but public transportation has sort of a negative connotation around here. And I don’t know why because it really provides us with roads that aren’t clogged.”

D’Itri told commissioners her job at Wave is helping people understand the system and its ins and outs. With that comes problem-solving. “Something that I frequently hear is that ‘I would love to use public transportation, but…’

She added reasons vary from inconvenience of the system to routes not running during hours most needed. With long-term funding in place, those complaints and in effect problems lessen. She also added the tax will encourage more ways for locals to ride their bikes or walk safely along more pedestrian passageways: “It lets the people who live here fully engage in this place.” 

As commissioners were poised to pass the resolution, Zapple made a motion to postpone adding the transportation sales tax referendum to the ballot and readdress by the end of this calendar year. He iterated more time was needed to promote a tax increase to the community at large, with a detailed plan to inform and show how it would benefit the community overall — not just a certain sector of the population.

“We sold the hospital with only a theoretical plan of how those resources will be put to use,” Barfield replied. “There still is no real concrete plan yet. We have $1.25 billion sitting there to be utilized. We’re only talking about $144 million over 10 years, a whole lot different. So I don’t understand how we can’t have a plan for $1.25 billion. But you bring in $14 million a year, and all of a sudden we got to have a detailed plan right now. Please, explain it to me like I’m a 6-year-old.”

According to internal emails from the county, on Apr. 25 concerned citizen Peter R. Olson also addressed the hospital funds with commissioners: “To increase taxes while we are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of the hospital and federal relief funds is the height of hubris. We cannot continue to view the money from the sale of the hospital as some sacred fund that cannot be touched to serve pressing issues.”

Barfield made a substitute motion to move forward with putting the referendum on the ballot. It passed.

Next, the county will begin working out plans with municipalities — City of Wilmington and Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville beaches — and Wave Transit, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), and other community partners. The goal, according to the county, is to “prioritize projects and ensure proceeds would be used efficiently and effectively.”  

The $144 million generated would be spent on: 

  • Onboarding wi-fi
  • Increasing zero-emission and greener technology
  • Offering more student transportation programs
  • Connecting public transportation to bike and pedestrian paths
  • Creating new bike lanes, trails greenways, sidewalks and crosswalks
  • Relocating freight lines from densely populated areas of the county, with possibility of turning rail lines into other modes of transportation, such as a trolley system

If voters pass the increase, commissioners will regroup behind the dais again to officially levy the tax.

Internal emails from county government officials explained “if voters approve the measure in November, the tax becomes part of commissioners’ toolbox in perpetuity.”

These dollars would not replace current transportation funds and could only be used toward transportation projects, sans road or street improvements, according to state legislation

The sales tax increase could also be leveraged for additional state and federal funding.  

The county will launch an educational campaign before voters head to the polls in November. The referendum on the ballot will be presented as such for voters to choose “for” or “against”:

“One-quarter percent (1/4%) local sales and use taxes, in addition to the current local sales and use taxes, to be used only for public transportation systems.”

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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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