Monday, June 24, 2024

Leland passes 17% property tax increase, town hall expansion comes in $7M less

Plans for the Leland Town Hall expansion, which town staff is projecting to cost $13 million instead of the estimated $20 million. (Courtesy photo)

LELAND — After months of animosity building between residents and the Town of Leland, a budget was passed for the upcoming fiscal year. Staff also delivered news to council that the $20-million town hall expansion is poised to be less expensive than once projected.

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It includes a 17% tax increase, which is less than 70% the town put forward in February. Officials have said the needs are merited by a growing town of roughly 3,000 residents a year. They approved a tax rate of 27 cents per $100 property valuation, up from 23 cents last year. 

During the hour-and-a-half public hearing, nearly two dozen residents took the mic, some to beseech leaders to choose otherwise. 

“Here I am again pleading with each and every one of you to please reconsider the tax rate,” resident Jane Crowder and former Leland Council member said. “It is apparent that each and every one of you seem to know what is best for the residents of Leland. Well, I kind of hate to burst your bubble, but you don’t. … If council members would be willing to pay the tax increase for each and every resident, then go ahead and approve the taxes. But if you’re not, then don’t.”

In addition, Crowder added it would impact people on fixed incomes. Shaunda Blake echoed a similar concern, stating residents in her neighborhood are maxed out to make ends meet, some of whom are single parents struggling already against inflation. 

“They’ve always worked two jobs, now they’re not sure what they’re going to have to do,” she said. 

The average home price in Leland is roughly $320,000, which will cost residents who own a home of that value roughly $130 more annually. The budget is $50 million, with $46 million allocated from the general fund. The additional 4-cent increase will generate around $2.6 million in revenue for investing in the town, including repaving roads and improving fire and police services.

Some spoke against bearing the brunt of road reconstruction. The budget originally had $5.5 million put toward resurfacing needs, but it was reduced to $4 million during revisions. Residents noted the roadways are overrun with large trucks carrying heavy loads due to increased development, which they cite as the impetus of roadway destruction.

“If I took a jackhammer to the public roads, what would happen to me?” Vivani Mani, who lives in Brunswick Forest, asked. “I think I would have an officer knocking at my door. I think I would probably end up in a courtroom. I think I would have to pay for court fees and certainly fix the road that I damaged. So how come we as taxpayers have to pay for what a corporation or an individual or I don’t know who damaged our roads?”

The additional $600,000 brought in from the increase is going toward police needs, including the addition of officers.

However, many speakers Thursday evening also took umbrage over the debt financing with town hall’s upcoming expansion. In the budget next year is $2.7 million put toward town hall.

“We don’t need a $20 million dollar town hall expansion,” resident Kathy Short said at the meeting. 

After passing the budget, council heard a presentation about expansion plans and issuing loan financing.

Town hall was built in 2015 for $10 million. Will Lear, the project manager, said since in the decade since residents have more-than doubled from 12,000 to almost 33,000, with town staff escalating from 65 to 205.

“The intention was for the existing building to be substantial to hold all the employees for a 10-year time period,” Lear said. 

The original space was built with 56 designated offices. Space now is overflowing with cubicles, in areas not originally intended to contain offices. This includes 25% of the police department — which in the last two years also has reached capacity for evidence processing and storage areas — two of the town hall’s conference rooms, as well as the mailroom.

The town converted a meeting and training rooms into more cubicles, normally used for community events but also slated as the location for an emergency management center when needed — used for hurricanes or other emergencies. As well, city and county agencies, including fire, for example, often utilized it for training.

Lear said should EOC need to deploy, it would launch in council chambers now, while adding the Longleaf Room is primarily used for community needs, including Red Cross blood drives regularly.

“Has the public seen any of these,” councilmember Richard Holloman said, as Lear moved through the slides.

Most residents who spoke during the budget hearing left by the time it was presented. A public hearing opened after the presentation, but no one signed up to speak.

“I mean, it’s disappointing that this is one of their biggest beefs and they didn’t stay and watch,” Holloman said.

He was referring to Better Government 4 Leland, an organization that has held rallies and bombarded council with cries against the tax rate. Their top three concerns include stopping increased taxes, as well as the expansion and renovation of town hall, and preventing town staff “bloat.”

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In 2021 the town was looking at a basic renovation plan, to redesign for more conference rooms and office spaces, but realized it would not meet growth. Lear said they re-evaluated in 2022 and decided the expansion and renovations, including replacing an HVAC system, would need to take place simultaneously.

“The town hall expansion allows us to get back a lot of intended use for the conference rooms that we currently have in the building,” Lear said.

It will include building an additional two-story, 22,000-square-foot facility on land beside the current town hall, with 69 offices and flex space to use for community meetings, conferences or more offices as needed. The second floor will go back to be a public safety wing, for both police and fire. An additional 50-space parking lot is included, used for city staff and events held at adjoining Founders Park, also undergoing renovations currently.

“We certainly have room to grow in it,” Lear said. “We know that there’s going to be some unused space probably right off the bat. … Our intent is the same as the existing town hall, to have another 10 year lifespan on it.”

Designs are complete, permits approved and bids have opened, with five firms pre-qualified.

According to Carly Hagg, finance director, the bids so far have come in under the $20 million expectation: from $11 million to $14 million.

“So moving forward, we’re looking to finance only $13 million, not the original $20 million that was proposed,” Hagg said.

It’s also a six-year financing plan instead of 10, reducing the amount of interest at a projected rate of currently 3%. It could save the town around $5.9 million. 

“We know that could fluctuate between now and July,” Hagg added.

Council voted unanimously to move forward in allowing staff to submit an application to the Local Government Commission, due June 4. The LGC approves debt financing for county governments, including limited obligation bonds; a deed of trust on the current town hall will be put up for collateral. 

Council will be presented the winning bid in June for approval and then the project will potentially break ground by August, if financing receives the sign-off by the LGC.

The first payment would be due April 2025 if all goes according to plan, with final payoff in April 2030.

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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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