Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Town hall: Commissioner candidates address affordable housing, higher taxes, ethics

PCD assistant editor Alex Sands asks candidates questions during the 2022 Primary Election Town Hall held at CFCC Tuesday. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Seven candidates — three Democrats and four Republicans — convened at a town hall Tuesday evening to tackle concerns in the county as they vie for two open seats on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Incumbents Rob Zapple and chair Julia Olson-Boseman, both Democrats, faced off against primary challenger Travis Robinson. Republicans Tom Toby, LeAnn Pierce, Harry Knight and Joe Irrera are fighting for two of three Republican nominations.

CATCH UP: Previous election coverage 

Journalists from Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT posed questions from their respective newsrooms, and readers, listeners and viewers alike. Each candidate engaged topics such as affordable housing, property taxes, Battleship Point, Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement and hospital sale funds.

Early voting for the 2022 Primary Election — May 17 — is open through May 14. 

“Often, we don’t get as much of a voter turnout,” commissioner Zapple noted to an audience of 60 at CFCC during his closing remarks.

In the 2020 primary season, which included the last board of commissioners election, 31.34% of ballots were cast — 52,682 out of 168,115. Democrats on the board culled 76,702 votes (Robinson ran then, securing a little over 6%), and Republicans received 48,167 votes (both Irrera and Knight ran as well, receiving 11.33% and 8.68% respectively).

On the ballot in 2022, voters will choose candidates from their registered party to move forward in the November general election. Unaffiliates — more than one-third of the registered voters in New Hanover — can choose which party’s primary they prefer in casting a ballot.

Julia Olson-Boseman answers questions about hard-hitting issues at the Tuesday night town hall, ahead of the primary election on May 17. Olson-Boseman hopes to retain her seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Early into the night, sitting commissioners were asked about some of the choices they have made as elected officials. Olson-Boseman addressed concerns regarding ethics. The chair was investigated by the state bar for mishandling a client’s funds. She also had unpaid fines and didn’t file reports with the N.C. State Board of Elections since 2019.

Olson-Boseman said her treasurer died of dementia in September, and she failed to get the help she needed to rectify paying fees and turning over missing documents. 

“And I certainly apologize for the oversight,” she said. 

Olson-Boseman went on to verify she hasn’t raised any money during this time. “But these violations of reports missing are zero brought in, zero out,” she added. “I agree: I think it’s probably unethical for me not to raise some money since I’ve been doing this.”

Reporters asked if the chair thought it impaired her ability to oversee and manage taxpayer money.  

“The process where the budget’s approved is transparent. You can watch it on TV,” she responded.

Twenty-four hours before the town hall, Rob Zapple had reversed course on voting for a quarter-cent transportation sales tax to go on the November ballot. For months, the commissioner was onboard with allowing voters to decide if the increased tax was worth it for $140 million over 10 years to improve bike paths and crosswalks, back the rail realignment and fund Wave Transit. 

When the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce came out against the proposal this election season — noting more time was needed to put together a promotional and educational campaign — Zapple voted against the referendum.

“I want this quarter-cent sales tax to pass,” he told the audience, “but I do not want it to go out there and have people [against it]. I was talking to Tom Toby here just a little bit earlier — and he’s not convinced. I know if I get a solid 15 or 30 minutes with Tom I’m gonna convince him.”

Rob Zapple discussES issues like affordable housing and Wave Transit sales tax increase at the town hall Tuesday evening. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Toby shook his head in disagreement. The candidate and 26-year firefighter also held an unpopular opinion about affordable housing, a topic each candidate was asked about at least once in a special round of questioning dedicated to the crisis. 

“The county government doesn’t necessarily need to be involved in housing,” Toby said. He also wanted to clearly define the meaning: “You’re talking about one of two different things — either subsidized housing or subsidized construction.”

Instead, he proposed helping all homeowners in the county by accessing funds from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

“Our hospital was sold without our permission,” Toby said. “So why can we not take the profits from that sale, invest that, lower everybody in New Hanover County’s property taxes, and make it a little bit more affordable for the rank-and-file and everybody here in New Hanover County?”

Almost all candidates expressed the desire to see better paying jobs to make affordability obtainable. Robinson specifically suggested an influx of programs and apprenticeships in the trade sector — technicians, electricians, linemen, plumbers — to grow a hollowed-out middle class.

Irrera said it applied to all industries “across the spectrum — anything from service to C-level suite executives.”

Hotel owner and former Carolina Beach mayor LeAnn Pierce favored economic drivers, including incentives that draw in more business and higher-paying careers. Exploring more public-private partnerships on a “case-by-case basis” also garnered her support, for affordable housing or otherwise.

“Project Grace is interesting,” she detailed and questioned the $90 million the county will pay over the next 20 years. The project combines the library and Cape Fear Museum, with mixed-use development and apartments, with 5% proposed to address workforce housing.

“I would assume it’s going to be a really nice looking museum and library for New Hanover County — it should be. So my question is: Why does that additional money have to be put in and what does that go towards?”

Former Carolina Beach mayor LeAnn Pierce discusses public-private partnerships and economic drivers like business incentives to help strengthen the county economy and workforce. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Over the last year, former GE engineer Harry Knight said demand has increased in the housing market by 50% with only 15% inventory on hand. He suggested incentivizing utilities and other infrastructure to drive down builder costs and in turn help the market so “working class citizens can actually afford to buy and live here.”

Commissioner Zapple and chair Olson-Boseman both referred to the $15 million the county has allocated over five years to promote affordable housing. Olson-Boseman did not pull punches when discussing the initial investment: “That certainly is not enough.” 

County leaders nixed a $50-million housing bond to go on the ballot this election year in favor of the $15 million investment from the county. Olson-Boseman suggested leveraging funds from the $1.5 billion hospital sale, as well with other businesses and partners.

The county, Zapple said, has signed off on four staff hires to find new affordable housing initiatives, including public-private partnerships, more low-cost utilities and higher salaried career options.

“It will be [the staff’s] job to find those projects that will deliver the most units to get us out of this affordable housing crisis, or to at least try to get us in the right direction and to be held accountable for every dime spent,” he said. 

In the broader scope of conversation, population growth was addressed by the panel as well. Lower density housing is one suggestion Toby said he believes will help manage more people moving into the county, which has experienced an 11% population growth since 2010, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. He referred to refraining from “unnecessary projects” that leaders continue to pass through.

“There’s a project in Porters Neck right now that has just been approved that none of the residents want,” Toby said. “Limiting the densities is going to help bring down our growth and bring down the stress on our infrastructure.”

He listed overcrowded schools as one example, calling for leadership to have a better grasp on smart planning.

Former firefighter Tom Toby held up his helmet pointing to its wear and tear and years of battle. “I can take the heat,” he told the audience in his closing statements, referring to being elected to the board of commissioners. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Knight referred to the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge as a fundamental vein of the county’s infrastructure that should be assessed immediately. Built in 1967, it has a 50-year lifespan that will expire in the next decade. With 60,000 vehicles crossing it daily, Knight said the time is nigh to get the ball rolling.

“We need to start today with our legislature, with some of our county funds, with a partnership with Brunswick, maybe some other private money to get options, designs and plans in place because that will take a number of years,” he said. “It’s going to take a partnership and a number of things to get it done.”

While many voiced concerns over the county’s unprecedented growth, Zapple called it “terrific.” The county projected receiving an 8% increase in funds from sales taxes in last year’s budget, he revealed: “And we’re outperforming each month by almost a million dollars.”

The money will be leveraged to decrease property taxes in the next budget by a penny and a half, Zapple said. It will counteract the 2021-2022 increase caused by property values increasing on average by 33% — or 5 cents for every $100 valuation of property.

Spearheaded by Olson-Boseman, the bump fueled raises for teachers, passing 3-2, with Zapple dissenting. “I fought to get teacher pay to number one in the state,” Olson-Boseman reminded the audience. 

“We took $24 million from the taxpayers,” Zapple said. “I want to look forward to a point where we are not taking that kind of money and still be able to deliver the quality of services that we do here in New Hanover County.”

Knight spoke out against the tax increases at a public hearing last year and doubled down on it during the town hall as well.

“We are actually increasing not only teacher’s pay but city and county workers and other staff because of the economy that we have today,” he clarified. “We have to be competitive. So what that tells you is, if we have the funds available this year to increase our expenses, from all of those various line items — mainly salaries — and cut our taxes, you didn’t need to raise our taxes last year to begin with.”

The budget also included a pay raise for commissioners last year, which Knight spoke vehemently against.

Harry Knight (left) and Joe Irrera have a moment of levity as reporters from Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT questioned them on numerous stances from obtaining a balanced budget to raising taxes. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Olson-Boseman has since had a change of heart on the increase she once favored. She expressed a desire to access the hospital sale funds to bring down property taxes the full 5 cents. 

“I believe I’m the only commissioner that wants to go back down to revenue neutral,” she said. “Now, everyone’s talked about it up here. I’m willing to do it.”

To maintain revenue neutrality, Irrera has suggested during his campaign to cut programs he thinks aren’t warranted. The need for more counselors for law enforcement or in schools stuck out as arbitrary, he said, and noted a desire to work in a more proactive rather than reactive manner.

“Move in front of some of these issues,” Irrera said. “The turmoil in some of our schools, the turmoil in our streets, the opioid crisis, other crime problems that we’re experiencing here in New Hanover County, [we need] more law enforcement.”

Toby agreed, suggesting more funds for the sheriff’s office instead — something that was allotted $61 million in the current county budget, a 2.4% increase from the previous year. Just last month, the county increased pay for first responders between 12% and 30% — “​​back pay that has been owed to all of our public officials or our public servants since [2006],” Toby added. 

He also agreed with Irrera that $39 million for an anti-violence plan — including the newly minted Port City United department — is better suited for those trained in law enforcement.

“Put that in the sheriff’s department and let them deal with it,” Toby said. “They’re the professionals, and they know what they’re doing.”

As part of the anti-violence plan, the county is addressing needs in areas of downtown Wilmington like the Northside, a USDA-designated food desert. County leadership alloted $2.8 million in Covid-19 relief funds to bring a grocery store to the area, and recently asked the city to donate land at the corner of 10th and Fanning streets to build it. Northside Food Co-op will run the operation, something Toby noted he would have to do more research on before fully understanding how to execute the plan.

Travis Robinson spoke about serving on the Northside Co-Op board and his time in law enforcement in his call to serve the public as an elected official. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

With 30 years in law enforcement, Robinson has served on the co-op board and attended commissioner meetings, advocating for its importance to fundamentally help an underserved population in the community.  

Robinson was asked about his stance on Battleship Point, a three-tower development proposed for the west banks of the Cape Fear River.

“Because of the historical significance of the area of flooding, and those types of things, it’s going to take a lot more to convince me,” he said, adding the Battleship N.C. should remain the iconic staple of what people first see across the river. Education, he pinpointed, was key to discern how and if building on the western banks should occur.

“We need to go ahead and control that destiny,” Irrera said, noting development of the western banks an inevitable part of Wilmington’s future. 

He pointed to modern-day technology he witnessed in Dubai during his 30-year service in the Marine Corps. “I’ve seen where they’ve actually built neighborhoods, cities, in oceans. So they can do that.”

Pierce, though not addressing Battleship Point per se, touted expertise in dealing with coastal issues. She said she possesses the finesse and knowledge to navigate government bureaucracy.

“As mayor of Carolina Beach, I sat in a room with the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point and the Army Corps of Engineers and NCDOT, and our state and our federal partners,” she said. “I’ve built consensus amongst them and made things happen for our citizens.”

Journalists questioned her spending of taxpayer money and completing projects in a timely fashion, notably with a halted lake dredging project in Carolina Beach. Pierce said it was more of a management issue than a council issue to begin with, and something that had never been done before. The town is in contact and negotiations with MOTSU to correct the issue, she assured.

“But to your question about how would you manage that in New Hanover County? I think you have to have a really close watch on whoever’s managing your projects,” she said.

Watch the full commissioners town hall and learn where candidates stand on greenspace, support for the school board and controlling increased rental prices — “the hardest question tonight,” Pierce said. The livestream is shared on Port City Daily’s Facebook page. After the primaries, final candidates will be invited back for another town hall in the fall, ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

Voters may partake in same-day registration throughout the two-week early voting period (check if your registration is active at your current address). Primary Election Day is May 17. 

WECT’s Jon Evans helped moderate the town hall Tuesday evening at CFCC. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Retraction: The original publication of the article noted candidates accessing hospital sale funds of $1.25 billion, but the total is $1.5 billion. The funds are broken down with $50 million going toward a mental and behavioral health fund, $300 million revenue stabilization fund, and $1.25 billion going to the community endowment. Port City Daily regrets the error.

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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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