Sunday, August 14, 2022

‘Backpedaling:’ Pressed by city leaders, county officials still hesitate on transit sales tax

Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County commissioners joined at the convention center Thursday to discuss affordable housing and a potential sales tax to benefit public transportation. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Six of seven Wilmington City Council members looked on at the New Hanover County commissioners Thursday morning and waited for them to take up a discussion on the proposed quarter-cent sales tax, which would fill years-long financial shortfalls within Wave Transit.

In a rare meeting, the two elected bodies had joined in the downtown convention center to discuss affordable housing. After that conversation wrapped, the mayor moved to the second item on the agenda: a proposed quarter-cent sales tax referendum to benefit public transportation.

A bout of awkward silence that followed hinted what was to come: commissioners weren’t eager to move forward, at least not then. City councilors had nothing else to do but urge the officials to place the sales tax referendum on the next election ballot for public transportation — a power only the county holds.

“I thought when we were coming here that we would have some sort of an answer,” Mayor Bill Saffo said later in the meeting, also recognizing it wasn’t up to the city council and he understood the commissioners needed more time.

The referendum would give residents the option in November to vote on whether they are willing to spend a quarter per $100 doled out at restaurants, shops and other businesses, in exchange for an improved busing system, bike and walking trails, and realigning the rail tracks.

Only the county has the authority to approve a countywide sales tax increase, hence why the council members were blinking at the commissioners. All, except newcomer council member Luke Waddell, supported the idea, envisioning how the money could fund solutions to traffic congestion and would oblige the numerous tourists and neighbors of nearby counties to pitch in.

Each day, more than 60,000 cars cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, usually coming from the surrounding, somewhat rural areas. The influx exacerbates traffic issues, a costly fix the transportation money could help address by increasing the multiple modes of getting around.

Still, on Thursday, the county manager said he had nothing to present in regard to the sales tax referendum. When the mayor asked if they were going to have a discussion, chair Julia Olson-Boseman signaled it would be short-lived.

“I don’t know about everybody else, but the events of yesterday have pretty much changed everything,” she said, referring to Russia’s invasion into Ukraine.

In December, an ad hoc committee with commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield, along with council members Clifford Barnett, Kevin Spears and Margaret Haynes, unanimously favored the idea of a sales tax referendum to go on the ballot in November 2022.

But Zapple said there was now an “internal debate” within the county commissioners, and he didn’t think they could move forward without unanimity. That said, council member Charlie Rivenbark and Spears — two members on the opposite end of the political spectrum — questioned what else there was to think about.

“There’s no transparency here. What is going on?” Spears said. “Everybody who was a part of this meeting knew that this quarter-cent sales tax transportation bond was going to be up for discussion today and now we’re backpedaling and talking about a war — What does the war have to do with transportation?”

That’s the point when Olson-Boseman said they were getting ready to adjourn.

“Wait, wait don’t cut me off, Julie,” Spears said.

Then, Rivenbark chimed in. 

“Excuse me, Kevin, let me jump in here,” he said. “Forgive me, but what are we talking about here? It’s on the agenda. I agree with Kevin. I mean, you’ve had how long to discuss it? What else do you need to discuss to put it out to the voters? Transportation is something we’ve been screaming about for years, almost like affordable and workforce housing. What else? If there’s a stumbling block out there, or you’ve had some other poll done that it won’t pass, lay it out here — Don’t get all pouty with me. I just want to know what’s going on.”

Zapple and Barfield came out as two commissioners who supported the funding option. Barfield said he didn’t comprehend why they couldn’t proceed with the conversation; Zapple was more understanding of the predicament.

“If the citizens in our community deem public transportation important, they’ll vote for it. And if they don’t, they won’t vote for it, and then we can move on from there,” Barfield said. “But I don’t know why the hesitation in making a decision now or shutting down conversation. I can’t understand that.”

Commissioner vice-chair Deb Hays, the only elected official on the Wave Transit board, wasn’t fully against the sales tax — but said she had reservations given the growing inflation rate and, “just overnight,” a new war in Europe. She expressed hope the new CEO Marie Parker, brought on in December 2020, was well on the way to transforming Wave and perhaps it just hasn’t been seen yet. For now, she reported Wave is financially sustainable.

In an email to Port City Daily, Parker said Wave Transit was hopeful about getting the sales tax referendum on the ballot to establish a permanent revenue source, while also confirming her budget is balanced for the next two years. That’s in part thanks to $700,000 annual injections through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“It would also have a positive impact on the community, as every dollar invested in public transportation generates five dollars in economic returns,” Parker said. “The funding would create jobs, support capital investments and projects, and increase access across the community.”

Waddell was the only Wilmington council member opposed to the referendum. He said it was not the time to increase taxes on citizens, especially on top of inflation and the ad valorem tax increase.

“We’re talking about people who are struggling to afford housing, and then just increasing the cost of everything across the board,” Waddell said.

At the same time, mayor pro-tem Haynes argued public transit and affordable housing go hand in hand. Revenue from the sales tax wouldn’t only impact Wave, though. The money would also extend to multi-use paths and a future bus rapid transit system, made up of dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority for buses to move much quicker through the city.

The revenue also would help out as the City of Wilmington is in the midst of a major, potentially billion-dollar undertaking to relocate the train tracks that currently wind through the city. The project would move the route out of the way of around 30 intersections.

“If we can eliminate that, that will go a long way to improving the flow of traffic within the city of Wilmington,” Haynes said.

The city expects to see tremendous growth in the number of shipping containers traveling through it, especially after the navigational channel leading to the port is deepened to 47 feet, the same as Savannah’s. (At this point, that project is still years off.)

Saffo pointed out the city doesn’t have large tracts of land for containers to sit on while waiting for transfer, so they need to move in and out fast. Haynes added that the council was informed the lengths of the trains are going to double and trains can now stack two crates.

“So if you’re sitting at a railroad crossing and you’re there for 10 minutes now, in another few years, you’re going to be there for 20 or 25 minutes,” she said.

Explaining his support, Zapple indicated the “internal debate” he spoke of was also a matter of educating the other commissioners of the necessity — “some of which just happened now.” He said there are also questions being answered. But it doesn’t seem those will happen in the public realm.

“This is a way to really equitably spread a little bit of pain throughout,” Zapple said. “Yet, the impact could be huge — not only with Wave but the rail realignment and all the other projects we’re talking about.”

With a firm grasp of where all the council members stood, Rivenbark asked when the next meeting would be, but Olson-Boseman said she wasn’t in a position to schedule another meeting at that point.

Then she finally adjourned.

ALSO AT THE MEETING: NHC commits $15M to affordable housing, ditches $50M housing bond


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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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