WILMINGTON — More law enforcement is being added to downtown streets and some people located in the Municipal Service District are not happy with how it is being funded.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, councilors voted unanimously to add more police presence in a 70-block area of downtown due to growth and increased patrons at downtown bars, breweries and restaurants. It also accepted $40,000 from the New Hanover County ABC Board to purchase eBikes for officers to traverse areas, such as the Riverwalk, currently unreachable by car.
It will take $693,625 to add five officers charged with cracking down on alcohol violations under State Alcohol Law Enforcement guidelines.
Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams requested the new positions be funded in the city’s 2023 budget. City staff determined three, in addition to all equipment needs for $276,234 would be accounted for out of its general fund, along with five vehicles for $230,000.
The other two officer positions, totaling $184,000, it determined would be covered by the Municipal Service District’s $781,306 budget for the 2023 fiscal year.
“One of the fundamental responsibilities of any municipality is protection of citizens, which is why we all pay property taxes,” former MSD committee chair Clark Hipp told Port City Daily. “That’s just what city taxes should pay for. It doesn’t seem fair to me that a particular area be additionally taxed to pay for basic services provided to the municipality.”
Established in December 2016, the MSD is made up of residents and business owners in the area from the Cape Fear River to 5th Avenue and Nun Street up to the Isabel Holmes Bridge. They pay more in taxes to cover additional services, such as beautification and marketing of downtown, litter removal, hospitality assistance and enhanced economic development.
In the 2023 fiscal year, MSD taxpayers will dole out 6.47 cent per $100 valuation, up from 5.47 cent in 2022. It’s the first increase since MSD’s inception, put in place to cover the additional police.
City manager Tony Caudle broached the MSD Advisory Committee about staff’s budget recommendation in April. Hipp said the committee unanimously decided its revenues should not be used for police patrol and relayed as much to the city.
Some committee members were confused as to whether MSD funds could even be used to pay a municipal position, as it had never been done in the past.
Before Hipp’s term on the board expired July 1, he said he called several other MSDs in the state, one being Winston-Salem, and confirmed none pay for on-duty officers out of their budgets.
The city council ultimately makes the final decision, though.
“The council respects this advisory committee and has gone along with what you’ve asked for in the past, but, yes,” Caudle told the committee, “they’re pretty much autonomous when it comes to their decision-making.”
MSD is overseen by Wilmington Downtown Inc. — which has been without an executive director since May, when Holly Childs suddenly resigned. The district’s efforts are funded out of the city budget, as well as from taxes on properties within its bounds.
When the MSD formed, a steering committee to evaluate its need consisted of downtown representation including Justin Smith, owner of Husk, YoSake and Anne Bonny’s Bar and Grill.
Smith stopped serving on the committee before it was officially established in 2017. “To my knowledge, that type of expenditure [for municipal positions] was never part of what the MSD was supposed to stand for,” he said.
Smith noted that, while he knew there was an MSD tax increase that took place this year, he was unaware of its reasoning until this week. As a downtown business owner for 25 years, who frequently speaks with others in the vicinity, he said he knows he’s wasn’t the only one left in the dark.
“It seems like something was done under the cover of something and cooked up in a back room,” Smith said.
Front Street Brewery owner Tom Harris, who helped WDI develop the proposal to launch the MSD, said there’s been an increase in properties since the district began. Complexes like River Place, Flats on Front, Pier 3 and Sawmill Point all opened in the last few years, bringing 1,000 more units for rent.
Since the city is receiving more in property taxes, Harris said it, too, should cover basic services including police enforcement.
In 2021 the city collected $79 million in taxes, compared to $66 million collected in 2017 the city confirmed.
“The city taking money from the MSD to pay two police officers is not in keeping with what businesses were promised when they agreed to support the MSD,” Harris said.
Caudle told the committee there were tax and fee increases across the board for fiscal year 2022 and explained “it was a tough budget” all around.
He also reminded the committee the MSD was created for two reasons: safety and cleanliness. Caudle said city staff thought additional officers were in line with MSD’s mission.
“I recognize it may not be pleasurable or preferable to recommend two WPD officers be funded out of this revenue source, but I believe it’s the most equitable way,” he said in April.
The city confirmed with the committee it would review its budget each year to ascertain whether money could be pulled from the general fund instead. The MSD tax rate will be reassessed for fiscal year 2024.
Out of WPD’s roughly 130 officers, about 13 are delegated to the downtown task force already, which represents 10% of the force for less than 1% of the city’s incorporated area and less than 4% of its tax base, Caudle explained.
New Hanover County’s Sheriff’s Office also has five officers on the downtown task force. With WPD’s additions, it will bring the total to 23 on patrol downtown.
Williams and Caudle both confirmed the officer needs derive from downtown’s “explosive” growth. Yet, “existing staff is stretched too thin.” In April, Williams said he had 30 police vacancies, which accounted for “50 bodies” when including those on family leave or active military duty.
WPD Captain Kelly Sipes told council Tuesday the department had an interlocal agreement with the New Hanover County ABC Board since 2014. When the pandemic hit and nightlife shut down, that contract lapsed.
“Typically only ABC personnel are authorized to enforce ABC laws such as an establishment serving an underage patron,” city spokesperson Dylan Lee said. “This agreement will allow five existing WPD officers to have this authority and be able to help the ABC officers.”
Williams also confirmed in April WPD is not responsible for patrolling concert events, as Live Nation is in charge of hiring off-duty officers.
Hipp, along with others on the committee, were in favor of supporting funding off-duty officers for events downtown through MSD funds, as that would align with its mission.
“There was a way to address it,” he said. “No one with staff or council came to the committee and engaged with us. It was simply submitted as, ‘We need extra security and think MSD constituents should pay for it.’”
Smith said as a business owner, he would hope added police presence is more for crowd control and underage drinking than a targeted effort on business owners.
Council member Clifford Barnett said at Tuesday’s council meeting he also received letters from business owners saying they were not aware of the need for increased officer presence and raised a similar concern about more law enforcement “targeting” downtown establishments.
Captain Sipes said this was not the case and WPD “never had that allegation” before.
“I welcome any additional law enforcement; I’ll lean toward their expertise on what they feel is needed,” Smith said. “However, it can feed into a negative narrative about downtown and what downtown is.”
He said he wished more of a discussion was had amongst those immediately impacted.
The current MSD committee — consisting of 14 individuals to represent the area — remain unhappy with the result.
“No one reached out to us to involve us in any decision,” Hipp said. “We recommended that action not be taken and they disregarded our recommendation.”
Ed. Note: This article has been updated to include the city’s numbers for property taxes collected in 2021.
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