Monday, April 22, 2024

City proposes increased property taxes to support staff raises

City council was presented the recommended 2023 budget, which will be workshopped May 27 and voted on in June

City of Wilmington put forth its draft budget during Tuesday’s meeting, which includes property tax increases. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON — City of Wilmington residents may see increases to their property taxes and recycling and trash costs, according to council’s draft budget presentation Tuesday.

The $251-million recommended budget is a nearly $9-million increase compared to last fiscal year at $242 million.

City staff proposed a property tax hike of 1.42 cents to keep salaries competitive with similar markets. If approved, it would generate a little over $3 million toward the $7.2 million needed to pay staff higher wages.

Some spoke out against the move during the public comment period.

MSD Advisory Committee Chair and local developer Clark Hipp vocalized concerns about the budget’s proposed 1-cent increase to the municipal service district tax, a separate fee for residents who live downtown and benefit from additional services. The rate would rise from 5.47 to 6.47 cents if approved and generate $81,825 to hire two additional public safety officers downtown. 

Three more downtown officers also would be paid from the general fund. 

Hipp pointed out the municipal district advisory committee voted unanimously against the use of MSD funds for any on-duty police officers in a May 2 meeting. Members expressed that residents citywide should pay for additional police because everyone benefits from their services, not just people in the MSD.

“MSD funds were not intended to pay for typical services that the city should provide,” Hipp said. “I made a call to several municipal service districts in the state and none of them have done that before, have paid on-duty police salaries.”

Stormwater fees are slated to go up by 1% from $8.43 to $8.51. Recycling and trash services would see a 5% bump; pricing on trash carts could rise from $27.35 to $28.72  per month for a 95-gallon buggy and the 35-gallon could go from $22.22 to $23.34 per month.

Residents may also pay more to park downtown if the budget passes as drafted in June. City staff has suggested on-street parking meters charge an extra 50 cents per hour and to remove the first 90 minutes of free parking in downtown decks.

READ MORE: Downtown parking increase proposed for city budget

One council member expressed concern over rising costs for constituents. On parking fees, councilmember Kevin Spears said he thought the council could delay increases to “give residents a break” in midst of an ongoing pandemic that has driven the 8.5% inflation rate — the highest since 1981. 

Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes said the advisory committees understand the issues better and the Downtown Parking Authority Committee — made up of nine community leaders from Downtown Business Alliance, CFCC Board of Trustees, Lanier Parking and others — supported the increase. 

“We talk about following the advice or information of the experts and then doing something different,” Spears said. “We do that quite often.” 

He also suggested the council was moving fast with the process and requested more discussion.  

“We’ll have enough time on the 27th if it takes us all day,” Mayor Bill Saffo said, referring to the next budget session. “I know we’ll start early in the morning and could go very late in the evening.”

City staff has a few justifications for the higher taxes, according to the budget document. The first is to “remain competitive” in the labor market. In April, the city conducted a compensation study that found the city’s employees, especially first responders, were underpaid compared to surrounding areas. In January, the city’s minimum salary increased to $15 an hour. On April 5, the council voted to allocate $1.3 million to raise wages ahead of the fiscal year’s end. 

The council members could also see a 25% stipend increase. The mayor’s pay would go from $19,035 to $23,794 and councilmembers from $14,490 to $18,113. 

This year’s budget will go bigger with compensation. With the Rise Together initiative, the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion specialist will become a full-time position.Last year council approved the first of three planned raises to bring the officials in line with the market, according to the budget summary.

For affordable housing initiatives, the city will dedicate 1 cent of the collected property tax to generate $2.1 million. Those funds will go toward gap financing to help working families with mortgage payments and partner with developers on new housing projects, a new housing counselor on the community development and housing administration team, and home rehabilitation projects. The overall allocation for affordable housing efforts is $3.6 million.

Transportation projects also are a priority, according to city staff. The recommended budget designates $1.6 million for Wave Transit, a  6% increase over the current fiscal year.

The budget, as written,cuts funding for some nonprofits and other area organizations. JC Lyle, executive director of Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry, said its reward amount was lower than previous years and asked the council to reconsider the decision. Other groups seeing significant funding cuts include the Brigade Boys & Girls Club, Coastal Horizons and LINC. 

President and CEO of the arts council Rhonda Bellamy expressed dismay at receiving the same amount of funding, $25,000, for the seventh year in a row.

“Staff evaluates each application and scores them to determine award funding,” city spokesperson Jennifer Dandron explained. 

Groups with fund increases include Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, Carousel Center, Dreams of Wilmington, First Fruit Ministry and NourishNC.

Councilmembers will have a budget work session on May 27 and vote on the final budget June 7. The public will have the opportunity to provide feedback before the council takes action.

The full proposed budget can be read on the Wilmington City Council website. 

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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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