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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Leland residents rally to ‘Stop the Madness’ against tax-rate increase, town decreases budget to $50M

People gather at the Leland rally, armed with signs, to stand against tax increases. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

LELAND — Though last week Leland Town Council conceded to revise its significant property tax-rate increase from 70% to 17%, residents gathered on the town hall campus Saturday to express discord. By Monday, the town staff had a revised budget for council at its agenda review meeting, to be officially presented Thursday.

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

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

“We’re not gonna take it!” was a regular chant at Saturday’s rally against Leland’s 17% tax increase. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Won’t you ask if this is a tactic used on the public to give the appearance of listening to the people?” resident Shaunda Blake asked the crowd Saturday.

A town council meeting after news broke of the 70% increase drew more than 400 people to council chambers, crying out against the move.

“We’re not going to take it!” Blake continued at the rally.

It was the chant for upward of 100 people who showed up — complete with Twisted Sister’s ‘80s metal hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” playing during the interlude of speakers. The gathering was organized by the grassroots efforts of Better Government 4 Leland, composed of residents who also rallied for Stop Leland Stadium last year. Doug Field and Rhonda Florian helped arrange the event.

The group’s three immediate goals are to stop tax increases — “not 17%, 0%,” Field told the crowd — push back on the expansion and renovation of town hall, as well as increases on staff pay, and prevent staff “bloat.”

“What staff would you cut from this budget?” Blake asked, saying residents didn’t request a “wishlist” of increased services, which council noted last week it was attempting to achieve. “Our elected representatives will be held accountable.”

Doug Field speaking at the rally Saturday in Leland. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

There were many calls against town manager David Hollis; the highest paid staff member makes $241,000 annually. That’s more than the 2022 salary for Wilmington City Manager Tony Caudle — $236,250 — reported by StarNews. Wilmington has four times Leland’s population.

The Town of Leland uses the North Carolina League of Municipalities benchmark for salaries. A survey from 2021 found Leland’s town manager had the highest salary among 35 municipalities within the same population category (PCD reached out for more recent data and will update upon response). At the time, Leland’s population was 22,610 and landed in the 10,000 to 25,000 resident category.

PCD asked the town of Leland for Hollis’ pay increases throughout his career, but the request was not received by press and will be updated upon response. According to WECT, Hollis started in 2011 at $95,000 a year but had his pay increased to $101,000 within nine months. By 2022, StarNews reported Hollis made almost $177,000 a year.

“Normal salary increases are in the range of three to 5%,” resident Linda Adams said at Saturday’s rally. “There’s no way to justify the proposed increases in Leland right now.”

PCD asked Hollis how he felt about resident concerns that salaries were out of range with the municipalities league.

“I really don’t have any comment on that,” he said. “Everybody’s got an opinion. The League of Municipalities does a good job to assess the salary ranges and the averages of similar positions. And the Town of Leland is a competitive market.”

Adams, who once worked in human resources for corporate America for years before retiring, told the crowd it seemed like the town “cherry-picked” survey data comparable to larger cities, such as Raleigh and Charlotte, for increases. She added it’s not a fair assessment, due to to those areas’ half-a-million or more in population. 

Brunswick County’s fastest growing town consists of 29,500 people and is escalating by roughly 3,000 annually. The town manager salary in Leland is not quite to the level of Raleigh ($356,000) and Charlotte ($430,000).

At last week’s budget workshop, Public Safety Director Chris Langlois was discussing the town’s police ratios in Leland and compared it to municipalities of similar size like Goldsboro and Garner; their populations hover around 30,000.

PCD assessed the pay of Goldsboro’s former town manager Tim Salmon, who stepped down in February; it was $174,804.

Eighteen positions of the 202-person town staff make more than $100,000, with 36 people making more than $70,000. According to the U.S. Census 2022 report, the median household income in Brunswick County is $72,000.

The 70%-increase draft budget lists departmental increases include more than salaries and wages, 401Ks and pensions; they also envelop costs on travel, uniforms, marketing, and vehicle fuel and maintenance, among other items.

The increases are listed as:

  • IT: 48% increase
  • Administration: 46% increase
  • Finance: 34% increase
  • HR: 24% increase
  • Fleet and Facilities: 24% increase
  • Fire: 20% increase
  • Police: 19% increase
  • Streets and Grounds: 16% increase
  • Engineering: 10% increase
  • Emergency Management: 9% increase
  • Parks and Rec: 7% increase
  • Planning: 0% increase

The only department with a decrease:

  • Building inspection: – 6% 

These financials could be revised under the newly proposed budget with a 17% tax increase.

Leland initially proposed a little more than a $2 million salary increase in its administration department, which equals 66.7% more from last fiscal year ($1.2 million). This includes benefits for 11 employees, some of which were budgeted for half a year due to a January start date (the budget runs July to June), another position is brand new.

Council member Veronica Carter addressed it at the recent budget workshop meeting. 

“We need to talk about misconceptions of what people look at when they see salaries and or things on certain line items,” she said. “The one that I’ve read the most about was what appeared to be a raise of 60-plus percent, which was not a raise. It’s an increase on a budget line of 60%, but that was not a raise of 60%.”

The crowd at the budget workshop laughed.

Carter explained there was also a one-time adjustment with benefits “to meet a contractual requirement.” It wasn’t a part of that department’s budget before, but according to Carter, the auditor suggested it be added this year due to state law. She said the line item won’t escalate by 60% next year — rather would be “a normal increase” of cost-of-living adjustments.

Resident Adams questioned the town’s hiring of 11 new employees and told the crowd Saturday one department had five managers and two employees: “To do what? An HR audit would be appropriate.”

Leland spokesperson Jessica Jewell said there was not a department with five managers and two employees. 

“In the Finance Department, there are four staff members who manage other staff,” she wrote in an email Monday afternoon. “The Grant & Revenue Manager, also in the finance department, manages grants, not staff.”

401Ks were also tackled Saturday by some residents. Susan Burton — a retiree from the pharmaceutical industry — took umbrage with the town’s match, stating there isn’t a law mandating employers pay into it. 

“They want to contribute 5% to everybody’s 401K,” she said to a crowd of boos. “I know people who work in government, who work at schools — and, yeah, they have those accounts and put their money in like everybody else. But some companies, when they have a profit, will say, ‘OK, we had a profit this year of X percent, and we’re going to contribute Y percent to everybody’s accounts.’ That’s fine. But we don’t have a profit coming out of this building. We’ve had a deficit.”

The town is also seeking additional funds for an expansion to Leland Town Hall. It was built in 2013 for $10 million.

There is a $2.7 million line item in the budget that shows debt the town is paying on town hall — roughly 42% of the $6.4 million total listed. Other top line items include multiple fire trucks in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 ($963,000), as well as for town hall and Leland Police Department at $718,000.

Florian was one of the last people to speak at Saturday’s rally and called the $10 million that was put into building town hall “not good enough” for council. 

Rhonda Florian helped found Better Government 4 Leland. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The town has received site plans, which are under review prior to bidding out renovations scheduled to take place this year. Jewell said the town will utilize $20 million more in debt to finance it, but added currently there wasn’t a set price on the build-out.

“Plans call for a cafeteria for the staff to have free lunch because they work so hard,” Florian told the crowd Saturday. “So I was wondering if the people that become homeless from these taxes, and the families that are struggling to feed their children because of these taxes, and the seniors that can’t fill their prescriptions because of these taxes, will they be able to come here to the Taj Mahal and have free lunch?”

Jewell said there is no cafeteria planned for the structure.

The revised budget

At Monday’s agenda review meeting, Hollis informed council the budget was now $50 million, $46 million makes up the general fund. It’s down from the original $56 million. Mayor Brenda Bozeman suggested at the last meeting a revision to $0.27 cents instead of the original $0.39 cents per $100 property valuation; in 2023-2024, Leland residents paid $0.23 cents.

Hollis explained Monday how each cent of the tax rate generates roughly $665,000 as revenue for Leland. So going from $0.23 to $0.27 would be $2.6 million more from last fiscal year for the town to work with.

Public safety and infrastructure were the costliest items; fire and police comprised 33%, each getting $8 million. Repaving roads was to cost $5.5 million. 

Hollis proposed $4 million go to roadways instead — the town also receives Powell Bill money for gas tax and registration, as well as a federal appropriation for unpaved roads. The budget removed the replacement of Kay Todd Road design for $300,000 and John Sneed Lane for $1.2 million.

Around $750,000 will go to police for five new officers, while a new fire appartus will be financed at $2 million and there will be two firefighters hired instead of five. 

The emergency contingency will be brought down to $0, which before was at $2 million.

“All the other items would essentially come through the growth of the town,” Hollis told council Monday. “So as the town grows, it does allow the town to expand services.”

This was part of the rally cry from residents on Saturday. 

Blake said she had spoken with people from the Brunswick County tax office who had informed her increased population would likely safeguard citizen pocketbooks. 

“I was assured within Brunswick County that every municipality — including the town of Leland — will not need to increase the tax rate due to the huge growth that the county had seen in the last two years,” she told the crowd. “Imagine my shock when I attended the town council meeting in September of last year and heard the town of Leland say it was not revenue neutral.”

Council member Carter said at the agenda review meeting Monday she, too, had received comments from the public about growth and taxes. She asked Hollis to present at Thursday’s meeting “how you take it into consideration the additional revenues that come in every year because of the growth of the town.” Hollis agreed to showcase the trend data.

He added he has cut two new positions from the budget, including a community enrichment director and engineer. Cost of living adjustments are configured to be roughly $2,000 for staff, he said. 

Council is slated to vote this week on a May 2 public hearing on the budget.

Better Government 4 Leland encouraged all residents Saturday to attend Thursday’s meeting, passing a signup sheet for public comment. 

[Additional reporting by Peter Castagno. The piece has been updated to clarify the full budget is $50 million, with general fund at $46 million.]

Some residents want a recall on council elections due to the 70% tax increase. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
People gather at the Leland rally, armed with signs, to stand against tax increases. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Many people who showed up asked for council to be voted out. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Almost 100 people showed up to the rally in Leland. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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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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