NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As commissioners sussed out budget talks Monday, they passed a proposed plan that will save taxpayers money in the upcoming fiscal year.
A property tax cut has been proposed for 45 cents per $100, down from 2023’s 45.50 cents per $100. Commissioners voted 4-1, with newly elected LeAnn Pierce dissenting.
The vice chair was adamant the county could do more and give residents a full-cent tax break, noting New Hanover has experienced 16% growth.
“I initially thought to myself, it would not be very hard for us to come out with a $5 million tax cut out of $590 million,” Pierce told commissioners. “I really wanted to see that one cent, mainly, because there’s just a lot going on in our society,”
She referenced rising rents and mortgages, insurance rates, groceries, gas and inflation overall hitting the wallets of citizens.
“Paying more for that one-cent cut doesn’t seem like a whole lot in the whole scheme of things,” she said. “I’ve struggled with this budget, it’s my first budget in the county.”
In the $588 million budget, taxpayers save $2.6 million. Areas affected by the cut include:
- NHCS Capital: $500,000
- CFCC Operating Funds: $500,000
- Technical Certifications Program: $762,109
- Administrative Reserve: $200,000
- Salary Lag Adjustment: $500,000
- Social Worker (senior): $45,357
- Museum Park Shade Structure: $100,000
Revenue coming into the general fund is made up of 52% ad valorem tax, while sales tax contributes to 26%.
Commissioner Rob Zapple responded to Pierce’s comment about the growth surge, noting it will even out by next year. He stated in part the increased budget is driven by American Rescue Plan Act funding, set to end in 2024.
“COVID funds, I hate to say, have artificially inflated that number,” he said. “The enormous increase in sales tax that we’ve had will flatten out.”
Commissioners met last week on the budget, and Zapple said when assessing the “core government services,” not a lot has changed.
“So that’s what gave me comfort in looking at this,” he added. “I agree with you that a property tax cut is appropriate. And I think a … half-cent is good and sends a very strong message that we are watching our money here in the county.
For commissioner Barfield it was less about cutting taxes and more about funding what residents express a need for. The commissioner iterated he receives more requests from constituents about services, addressing a want for amenities like pickleball courts or teacher pay increases.
“For the last several years, now, I have not had a call from anyone saying, ‘I want you to reduce my tax rate,’” Barfield said.
He pointed to people who often frequent the county for its robust parks or expanded services offered at the libraries, specifically addressing transplants moving in from other states like Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.
“Major metro cities have these types of things,” he said. “When I see sales tax numbers continue to outdo what we’ve budgeted for, it lets me know that our county is not a hurting county and folks are spending money left and right all the time.”
Dane Scalise, who was sworn in to replace Deb Hays in April, said he has heard from residents wanting the tax cut. Scalise advocated for it, he noted, but remains “broadly concerned” by the fast growth of the budget in recent years. Like Zapple, he attributed it to the stimulus package counties received during the pandemic.
“Let’s be clear,” Scalise said, “those ARPA funds will not last forever. And when those temporary federal dollars are gone, we commissioners are going to have to determine whether the programs and initiatives created by those funds can be sustained in perpetuity by our taxpayers and our local dollars.”
The county received $45.4 million from ARPA and was recognized as one of the first counties in the nation to hash out a spending plan.
Money was used myriad ways.
It helped fund a pandemic operations team, withs former director, Jon Campbell, transitioning into the health director position at the county health and human services department since. The PanOps center on Greenfield Street, also funded by ARPA money, has closed; vaccines and free take-home tests can now be received at the HHS building.
The money also went toward infrastructure needs, high-speed internet access for underfunded households, increased licensed clinical therapists at county schools to address students affected by Covid-19, senior resource center services, job training, housing assistance and more.
The 2023-2024 budget includes almost $129 million for schools, more than $6 million from last year, funding over $10 million in capital needs.
Around $15 million will go to the mental and behavioral health fund and revenue stabilization support, supported by the New Hanover County Regional Medical Center hospital sale.
$3 million from the board’s $15-million five-year plan to address affordable housing is included as well.
Commissioners also approved Monday more than $1 million to go to area organizations for economic development:
- $292,782: Wilmington Business Development
- $197,652: Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce
- $154,752: Wilmington Regional Film Commission
- $100,000: Wilmington Downtown, Inc.
- $100,000: Arts Council of Wilmington/New Hanover County
- $75,000: Genesis Block Labs, LLC
- $28,000: Cucalorus Film Foundation
- $27,300: Cape Fear Council of Governments Continuum of Care for Homelessness
- $20,313: Southeastern Economic Development Commission
- $20,000: The Southeastern Partnership, Inc.
- $12,500: Wilmington Symphony Orchestra
- $5,000: Friends of Fort Fisher
- $5,000: Highway 17 Transportation Association in NC, Inc.
- $4,500: Cape Fear Resource Conservation and Development
The proposed budget can be found here and will go into effect July 1.