TOPSAIL BEACH — New fire and police departments, increased water and sewer capacity and more staff are top priorities for Topsail Beach moving into the next decade.
But to get there, the town has to figure out where the money is coming from.
The town’s current operating budget is $8.2 million, down from $12.2 million in fiscal year 2022.
According to Topsail budget documents, there aren’t channel dredging and beach nourishment projects scheduled in this year’s Beach, Inlet, Sound Fund, which accounts for part of the decrease. Last year, both services were allotted $6.6 million; this year’s BIS fund accounts for only $1.6 million in the budget.
If the town were to fund everything on its “wish list,” it would need $141 million.
Currently, Topsail has no bond rating, since it’s never issued bonds before, has some of the lowest taxes in the region and doesn’t qualify for many grant opportunities based on the high median income in the area. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Topsail Beach residents have a median household income of nearly $80,000 — roughly 1.5 times greater than Wilmington.
Town manager Doug Shipley — on the job for four months, he reminded commissioners — broached the topic of future needs Wednesday during a vision and strategy meeting.
“Staff expressed a desire for better direction on what this board would like from us with regard to items for infrastructure, capital equipment purchases and staff,” Shipley told the board.
Mayor Steven Smith said he ranked his priorities — based on a poll Shipley sent to elected officials compiled by staff feedback — on population growth.
“Look at Pender County and the surrounding area, and Wilmington,” he said at the meeting.
Smith estimated the full-time population would double over the next decade and the town would see a 20% increase in visitors as well, up from the current 10,000 the beach town welcomes in summer months.
Town staff and the elected officials also seem to have opposing views on future resource needs.
To see through the desired growth in Topsail, commissioners indicated the need for 17 more employees in the next decade. Shipley and assistant town manager Christina Burke estimated — with input from department heads — it’s likely to need between 27 and 31.
Staff alone is estimated to add $4 million to the town’s operating expenses for police, fire, finance, community development, water and sewer, human resources, IT, administration, and grants departments.
Shipley suggested releasing a request for qualifications or proposals from financial planning firms, which could “analyze tax rates,” as the best way to proceed on where the money should come from, to which the board agreed.
“That takes the heat off us making the decision,” commissioner Frank Braxton said. “The impacts that would have and what’s needed and how to move forward. It would be invaluable information.”
While a new town hall — to replace the 50-year one built from an old gas station — and a new public works building are needed, they ranked lowest on commissioners’ priorities. Below are top concerns in the county.
Six commissioners and Smith ranked a new fire department and emergency operations center building as its greatest need. A rough preliminary estimate comes in at $10 million to $15 million for new construction.
The current building at 816 S. Anderson Boulevard is 70 years old.
The former all-volunteer fire department has moved into a hybrid model and is working toward employing all full-time staff. Smith explained there are not enough volunteers living on the island to respond to emergencies in a timely manner.
He also said crime has changed over the years with more people coming to the island year-round.
“We need to give the men and women the facilities they need to provide services to the community,” Smith said. “It’s a high priority.”
He also floated the idea of a combined fire and police building, as both departments need upgraded quarters.
Braxton agreed, noting it would save on square footage and the land was already in hand.
“Now it’s a matter of looking at the facility study and seeing what preliminary costs are and factoring in can we afford it? How do we make it work?” he added.
Topsail commissioners unanimously approved the purchase of 802, 804 and 806 S. Anderson Boulevard for $1 million in August. The town submitted its plans for financing to the Local Government Commission, which granted unanimous approval in September.
Until construction breaks ground on the new facilities, leaders said it can use the property for additional parking and special events.
Along with the improved building, the fire department is looking to purchase a $1.2-million ladder truck, along with other needed equipment, and add 12 firefighters.
“We’re eventually going to need four on a crew to work,” fire chief Bo Fussell said at the meeting. “We already have to have four on scene before we send a firefighter into a building to save a person or extinguish a fire.”
Braxton suggested looking into a fire tax, as neighboring towns have, to fund the projects. He also proposed a fire truck fund, allocating money to it annually.
Shipley broached the elephant in the room about raising taxes, which he referred to as “the ‘T’ word.”
“I know we raised them by 3 cents last year,” Shipley said, “and I’m not saying we do that. I’m saying if we’re looking at the crystal ball for 10 years and beyond, do we want to trickle that as we go forward, as opposed to hitting them all at once 10 years from now?”
Topsail Beach’s tax rate increased from $0.31 per $100 valuation to $0.34 per $100 in the fiscal year 2023 budget.
Braxton said if taxes significantly rose all at once it would cause a “rebellion.”
“A fire tax, though, people could be understanding,” he added.
Also on the horizon: the cancellation of Pender EMS/Fire providing water rescue staff in the next two years. Pender EMS and Topsail have a verbal agreement — no formal contract — and indicated to both Shipley and Fussell it wouldn’t be able to provide assistance much longer, based on increased costs and staffing shortages.
Topsail fire wants to purchase an $80,000 boat to avoid having to rely on neighboring towns in emergencies. Right now, water rescue services are provided Memorial through Labor Day only, with at least one “certified swimmer” on call per day. The town’s jurisdiction is through the sound and into the center of the Intracoastal Waterway.
“It’s our responsibility,” Shipley said.
Fussell clarified Topsail has no “obligation” to provide water rescue services, but if a call comes in, the fire department is the one to respond.
Last year, Topsail received 12 calls oceanside and five of them required a team to go into the water.
“So, if we don’t have a certified swimmer, then basically there’s nothing we can do except wait until Pender County gets there with their boat or a good Samaritan goes in,” he said.
Water and sewer needs
Currently, the town sources its water from Pee Dee Aquifer, drawn through four aging wells, the oldest a 40-year-old tank on Anderson Boulevard.
“We can only pump so much within each well,” Mayor Smith said. “The winter would be easy but summer, with 10,000 more tourists, would be difficult.”
The town has multiple options for improving capacity moving forward. Topsail is hooked into Surf City’s water plant as a backup for emergencies.
“We’ve had to turn the valve on one time for pressure needed for a fire, but as far as use for day-to-day, it’s not an option at this time,” Shipley said. “But it’s there and something we could and maybe should investigate.”
Shipley said he discussed with Surf City town manager Kyle Breuer its desire to expand sewer capacity. The two are open to the idea of teaming up on the project.
The other possibility is for Topsail to tie into Pender County’s reverse osmosis plant, in the planning stages over the last few years. The county is struggling to find adequate land to build on and construction could still be more than five years out.
Plus, the town would have to fund construction to run lines across the sound to tie into Pender County. It would also need to build a pump station, which would include purchasing easements. Costs could exceed $70 million to run both water and sewer to the county.
The third option was to build a new well in town; however, finding a suitable location would also be difficult, Shipley explained. He added there were advantages and disadvantages to each path.
“All our systems to date are working as designed and functioning well,” Smith said. “But we need to be prepared for something down the road.”
Commissioners agreed to have a sit down with Surf City officials after Jan. 1 and discuss future options for water and sewer.
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