Monday, June 24, 2024

Leland council walks back 70% tax rate increase, explores 17% instead

Mayor Brenda Bozeman asks a vocal audience to be respectful during the council’s Leland budget meeting on Tuesday evening. (Screenshot of meeting)

WILMINGTON — Despite a lack of public comment on the agenda at Leland’s budget workshop meeting Tuesday, folks crowded the room to listen in — and catcall — as officials directed staff to bring down a hefty property tax increase proposed earlier this year.

Read more: Leland to consider 70% property tax increase to fund roads and public safety

Council agreed for town manager David Hollis to reassess the numbers and bring back to council a new plan that would see only a 17% increase in property taxes from last budget year.

The town began working on the 2024-2025 fiscal year in September with a laundry list of significant costly items to include in its proposed $56-million budget. The goal was to increase services, something that council members now have pulled back on after resident push back.

The town tried to increase the tax rate by 70%, which would make property taxes go from $0.23 every $100 in valuation to $0.39. To break it down: Someone with a $322,600 mortgage would pay more than $1,200 in property taxes.

Mayor Brenda Bozeman asked if the town manager could bring the tax rate to $0.27 and work out a five-to-seven-year plan.

“We can certainly work on anything you want us to,” David Hollis responded. “It’s just what level of service you’re going to provide — not just keeping things the same but increasing a level of service.” 

The decrease to $0.27 would bring the cost for the $322,600 mortgage to $871 in property taxes (the current rate brings in $741).

Special council workshops do not include public comment but it didn’t stop residents from speaking out frequently throughout the process, responding to council chatter, often laughing, sometimes clapping.

Bozeman threatened to recess within the first 3 minutes and clear the room if the audience couldn’t maintain respectful decorum. This came upon a call on who to hold accountable for the considerable increase.

“Don’t go bad-mouthing the staff,” the mayor told the audience. “If you’re gonna bad-mouth anybody, bad-mouth us. They’re doing what they’re told to do.”

The council admitted a deluge of complaints have come in via email and on social media, not to mention from the last council meeting. More than 400 people showed up, spilling out from the council chambers into the foyer, sitting on the floor, and leaning against the walls. Almost 60 people spoke out over two hours of the five-hour meeting.

Since PCD broke the news last month, residents have expressed numerous concerns about a 70% tax increase, alleging: roadway work promises go uncorrected; town staff salaries shouldn’t increase while senior residents are on a fixed budget and others work two and three jobs to keep up with inflation; fiscal irresponsibility on behalf of the town buying more land despite an annexation moratorium, spurning an investment where the money is needed.

“We stayed here and listened to every single person that signed up last month and took notes on what you said because it was a public hearing,” council member Veronica Carter told the audience Tuesday. “It wasn’t time for us to exchange ideas with you. It was a chance for you to tell us and listen and hear what you had to say. And that’s what we did.”

Council’s meeting Tuesday was to whittle down and consider only necessities in the upcoming budget. It also was to inform residents how the money was going to be spent. 

The budget was intended to expand services and build a safe and better community, council conveyed. About a third is slated for public safety and infrastructure needs, which centered the majority of conversation Tuesday evening. This includes funding more fire department and police officer positions, as well as equipment, taking up more than $16 million cumulatively, as well as bringing roads up to muster with $5.1 million.

Public Safety

While council was determined to bring down the tax rate at the behest of its constituents, many council members expressed concern that putting off some of the needs listed in the 2024 budget would result in costlier  purchases in the future. 

Council member Bill McHugh explained the fire truck the town was hoping to buy outright was listed at $800,000 seven years ago but has gone up to $1.3 million today. The town has four trucks that are 20-years-old and has been actively investing in their replacement for several years. 

“And we don’t know what the fire truck is going to cost four or five years down the road,” Carter said, “but I know if my house is on fire I don’t want a 20-year-old fire truck breaking down on the road to come save me.”

Later in the meeting, Hollis detailed that, traditionally, the town has financed such items with loans at a reasonable interest rate; the last truck it financed, for example, was $0.8 interest. Though that won’t be the case now, amid record-number interest rate increases; it could be roughly 4.5%. McHugh said it would equal $178,000 more.

“We’ve got to figure out what to prioritize and what the danger of prioritizing it is,” Carter added.

Other public safety costs were addressed, including staffing the fire department — the budget calls for five additional firefighters as well as equipment at $8.9 million. Three are being added to operate a new upgraded ladder truck and two to add to staff. 

Bozeman suggested the audience attend the Fire Fee Committee meeting taking place April 17 in the Leland Fire Station at 2 p.m. to advocate for fairer funding. While Leland and county residents in the Leland fire district pay a fire fee, only people living in Leland proper are faced with covering costs of equipment repairs and upgrades.

“It’s not right that our taxpayers keep having to pay the blunt to the fire department,” Bozeman said, referring to when district crew have to drive to Compass Pointe or Belville. “I want some ammunition to go in there.”

Carter suggested looking at an inflationary increase. 

“For those people who aren’t in our town, we are stuck with increases in prices when the trucks go up, but they’re still paying a flat fire fee for ever and ever, amen,” she added to applause. 

Five new police officers also are budgeted for almost $1 million. This number includes salaries, benefits, vehicle, radio and all other equipment.

The state average is 2.1 officers per a municipality’s 1,000 people. Leland has fallen below it, with 46 sworn officers serving a little more than 25,000 people in the 2022-2023 years, making for 1.8 officers per 1,000.

In the 2023-2024 budget, four officers were added to bring the fleet to 50, but the population continued to increase by roughly 3,000 people, so the ratio still decreased last budget session to 1.75 per 1,000.

“So we look at, for instance, in this proposed budget of adding five sworn positions — even with those five sworn positions, if our population goes up again, as it has for the last three years, that will drop our ratio again to 1.71,” Public Safety Director Chris Langlois said.

He cited comparable North Carolina cities, such as Goldsboro with a 33,000 population which has 108 sworn officers or Garner with a population of 31,600 and 78 sworn officers. 

Officers are also facing a higher rate of 911 or police calls for service, Langlois said: by around 50%. These calls don’t include self-initiated ones, such as for traffic stops or neighborhood and building patrols.

McHugh said the complaints residents express most revolve around traffic issues and said council discussed in its budget meetings how they can improve that service. 

“People are speeding, making illegal U-turns,” he said. “At present, the Town of Leland police has four officers on patrol. So if there’s an accident, we could very easily have them all tied up in a single incident, which takes them out of patrol. So the proposal was to create a power shift, to add four more officers during the busiest time of the police officers’ shift, seven days a week. We’ve already started that, this would have rounded it out, and we would have had it every single day.”

Langlois said, currently, for 20 miles of coverage, the day shift includes a total of one sergeant and six officers on duty, with the night shift runs with one sergeant and five officers. This does not account for anyone on vacation or who may call in sick.

Some residents, according to council, questioned why all police officers receive vehicles. It’s standard practice, Langlois said, and increases efficiency and response time, but also is needed during emergency situations like hurricanes. 

“A lot of police departments nationwide are encouraging take-home vehicles because everybody wants to have a law enforcement vehicle parked in their neighborhood, as it’s a crime deterrent,” Langlois added. 

The crowd laughed and jeered in response.

More so, he said the reason the department doesn’t “hot seat” — meaning running vehicles 24 hours a day, seven days a week — is because they travel roughly 200 miles per shift. Running them without breaks would mean replacing vehicles more often.

The budget also includes an emergency contingency fund for $2 million to help in times of hurricanes or natural disasters. The fund has been added in for several years. 

“That would have allowed us to have the cash on hand for a situation like Hurricane Florence, where the town of Leland paid out millions of dollars and took over three years to be reimbursed by FEMA,” McHugh said. “We consider that sound financial management and a way to ensure that service would not be interrupted should a catastrophe happen.”

Infrastructure

Council was pretty much in lock-step that road infrastructure would not go to the wayside this budget year. It is the number one complaint heard by residents: roads, sidewalks, connectivity.

“Roads and infrastructure has to be top billing — most rapidly cost-rising, most catastrophically deteriorating,” McHugh said. 

The town set the goal to repave 100 miles in the coming 20 years, meaning 5% of the budget is set aside for it annually. That would equal $5.1 million doled out next fiscal year.

“It’s certainly easier to reduce the amount that you spend on roadways than it is to lay off four or five police officers and reduce our force in some way,” Hollis said, speaking of long-term implications. 

He emphasized a fixed roadway is a one-time line item that would not be recurring. Once the road is corrected, it lasts years — and there is flexibility to consider which roads need drastic measures immediately compared to those that don’t.

The town receives help from Powell Bill money, with $1 million coming from the gas tax and another $1 million coming from registration fees paid to the state on vehicles. As well a federal appropriation of $3 million will come in to cover unpaved roads.

Some that are paved, however, are 15 and 20 years old, in need of repair, according to Public Works Director Lynn Vetter. She told council they didn’t endure a lot of inspection, as standards were “pretty loose” in the 2000s, with limited resources and the town’s lack of an engineer. 

“They did the best they could back then,” Bozeman said.

Development has since grown and town staff has increased.

[We’re] able to provide better inspection of those roads and we’re holding developers to a higher standard,” Vetter said. 

McHugh noted the town had planned to bring resurfacing needs in-house as much as possible. Vetter explained it uses a small machine that hot-patches the roads — to run only when temperatures are 50 degrees or more, else it has to cold-patch. Their equipment is limited to repairs that are 30-feet long and 7-feet wide; the temporary repair can last one to five years.

“If it’s larger, we have to get a contractor,” McHugh said. “And it’s incredibly difficult to get contractors for small projects.”

Thus the town will wait to couple projects to put out to bid, compounding worsening roadway problems.

Comments from the crowd pressed on why developers can’t burden some of the costs of deteriorating roads, particularly adjacent roads that connect to developments and bring in inevitably more traffic. It was a comment also asked of McHugh to much applause.

“Obviously, these are public roads, right? So they get a lot of wear and tear for regular use but when you build a new development next to one of them, they’re getting even heavier use from construction vehicles, construction traffic dump trucks. Why can’t we turn around and charge a fee for the deterioration of that road?”

Essentially, Hollis said there is no mechanism to do that and it would require engaging the North Carolina General Assembly to create as much. 

“We don’t have the ability to charge an impact fee of any kind,” he said, referring to one-time charges issued to developers for their project’s impact on the surrounding environment and infrastructure. “That’s impact on a roadway, on a school system, on police and fire — anything like that would not be allowed in North Carolina law.”

A law governing it began in 2016, disallowing impact fees for new developments for potential services; though it does allow for connection fees to sewer and water.

Lawsuits have ticked up in recent years regarding as much, including in Brunswick County in 2022, when it settled for $15.2 million with PBC Design + Build who claimed to be overcharged for system development fees. Also in 2022, the court ruled the Town of Leland had to pay $5.3 million to developers.

It was broached whether the town could sue a developer for damaging roadway costs — to much applause from the audience. But that could be a heftier legal expense, without guarantee the town would win. If anything, Hollis said the town attorney advised it could result in shared negligence, meaning the town would be held accountable for partial costs. 

“We theoretically could be doing what some of the older people in my family called ‘pouring good money after bad,’” Carter said, “where we might end up paying a lot for lawyers.”

Council agreed waiting to address the roadways problem would not be wise. Putting it off for 10 years, for example, to correct 20 miles could mean borrowing more money in the end: “$25-million-plus,” McHugh said. “We are not going to put this town in that position.”

Hollis and staff will begin to rework the budget immediately and update council at its Monday agenda review about where they are in the process. Roads will be prioritized first, safety second. The budget has to be passed before it goes into effect on July 1, 2024. 

A rally is being held Saturday by local residents at 10:30 a.m. at town hall.


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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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