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After last-minute debate, New Hanover County narrowly passes controversial budget

Donna Fayko - New Hanover County commissioners.jpg
New Hanover County
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The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

New Hanover County’s budget passed yesterday by a narrow 1-vote margin to boos from an angry audience. In it? A major jump in pay for teachers — and a substantial tax increase.

The county budget for the next fiscal year is officially set at $461 million dollars, a 15% increase over last year.

About 40% of the additional county spending will go to the school district, specifically to increase teacher pay. But that growth in pay is largely coming from what is effectively a 5-cent increase in property taxes from last year (the actual tax rate went down, but not enough to cancel out the average 33% increase in property values across the county, meaning the average resident will pay noticeably more in taxes).

During the meeting, the move faced severe opposition from property owners.

North Carolina Rep. Ted Davis, appearing as a concerned resident, led the charge against the county’s budget — and was followed by half a dozen more speakers opposed to the tax increase. Davis made a point of noting that commissioners had also nearly doubled their annual own stipends (from around $17,000 to around $31,000).

"I am presently on my ninth year in the state house. I have never voted for a tax increase," he said. "The real rub in the budget is your proposed salary increase. Especially after increases in the value of taxpayers properties due to valuation. This is like putting salt on the wound.”

Commissioner Deb Hays took the criticism to heart. “I am concerned that we are raising teacher pay on the one hand and taking property taxes on the other hand,” she said.

Commissioner Rob Zapple agreed, and both suggested finding alternate ways of funding the full budget using American Rescue Plan funding or money from the CARES act. But their motion to delay the vote until the next meeting failed, and the commission passed the controversial budget 3-2, with Jonathon Barfield, chair Julia Olson-Boseman, and Bill Rivenbark voting in favor. They received a few boos from the crowd.

Olson-Boseman, who spearheaded the education budget increase, defended her position.

“I don't think there's anything more important in this next year than educating our children," she said. "This past year has been horrific. And I'm sorry if y'all don't agree with that, but I'm not going to apologize for this budget or for what we're doing for education.”

The teacher supplement in New Hanover County will be the highest in the state with this new budget, more than doubling to $9,000. The supplement is added to the state’s allocation for each district, meaning a first-year teacher at New Hanover Public Schools will make $44,000 a year, compared to the baseline of $35,000.