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Wilmington and New Hanover leaders find common ground, and some tension, on shared issues

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Benjamin Schachtman
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Wilmington City Hall (left) and the New Hanover County Courthouse (right).

Many of the region’s problems don’t stop at the boundaries between the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County. At a recent joint meeting, elected officials found common ground -- but also some tensions -- on challenging issues affecting both governments.

The meeting, initially slated to run 90 minutes, went nearly twice as long -- and no wonder, as City Council members and commissioners had a slew of topics to tackle.

“The first one is the needs of the unsheltered homeless population… I want to talk about broadband… the digital divide… we need to focus on jobs ...we have a serious poverty issue ...so the next thing would be workforce and supportive housing … I’d like to put the WAVE issue in context of what we’ve already talked about today … as you know we’re moving forward with Project Grace.”

The problem of the city’s homeless population drew officials into a long conversation. One suggestion, from councilman Charlie Rivenbark, was to establish one or more day shelters for unsheltered people; several other officials leaned on working with the region’s non-profit partners -- but funding remains a sticky issue.

Beyond emergency and short-term services for the homeless, officials also touched on the related issue of affordable housing. 

Neither of these are new issues. The City of Wilmington and region’s non-profits launched a ‘10-year plan’ to end homelessness that ran from 2008 to 2018. The city and county formed an ad hoc affordable housing committee in 2017; two years later, a permanent committee was launched.

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Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. acknowledged frustration from staff members who have provided plans -- but not seen results.

“The frustrations I’ve heard from those committees, because they’ve -- again, it seems like we rehash the same conversations every couple of years, and those same committees have come back and reported, and reported, and reported -- and what I hear their frustration is that they bring it to us and then nothing happens.”

A more acute sense of frustration emerged during a conversation about mass transit in the region. 

Councilman Kevin O’Grady raised the issue of WAVE’s funding structure, noting that the city spends $1.4 million annually, far more than the county does. That didn’t sit well with County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman.

O’Grady: “We’re partners, and we have to fund it equally -- and we have not been funding it equally.”

Olson-Boseman: “Mr. O'Grady, we’re here to try and to discuss the future of this. We understand that you may be unhappy about that -- we are here as partners and I don’t appreciate you continuing to say that we are not contributing in equal fashion --”

O’Grady: “You’re not.”

Olson-Boseman: “May I finish please? If the only thing that you want is to see the county to strike a check for half the money and walk away, then we can certainly do that. But what we’re trying to do is find long-term solutions and not get in this little contest you’re trying to get with.”

Olson-Boseman ultimately gaveled O’Grady down and shortly afterwards officials took a five-minute break -- when they returned, Mayor Bill Saffo struck a conciliatory note, but echoed O’Grady in calling the current funding ‘disjointed’ and saying the city would like to see more equity between the partners. While the kerfuffle was brief, it does underscore the long-standing funding problems for WAVE, which are far from being resolved.

Officials from both bodies discussed alternative funding streams, including a possible small increase to sales tax -- which would require approval from state legislators. 

The last topic was the county’s Project Grace. Chair Olson-Boseman asked the city to consider buying into the project by renting some of the office space in the development. It’s worth noting that the county’s MOU with the developer already includes a provision for the city to rent roughly 75,000 square feet, but the city has not agreed to anything yet. Mayor Saffo said staff, and then council, would consider it.

Officials agreed to develop staff reports on several of the key issues, and scheduled another joint meeting in April to discuss them.

For WHQR, I’m Ben Schachtman.

Below: Watch the complete meeting here.