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Newsroom Conversations: This week in pickleball and tax increases

New Hanover County Chair Julia Olson-Boseman (right) and Commissioner Rob Zapple (left).

It’s been a busy week in local government. New Hanover County passed a nearly half-billion dollar budget after a contentious meeting. The next morning, county and Wilmington officials hashed out details of a housing bond and a sales tax to support public transportation. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer discuss.

Ben Schachtman: Alright Kelly, you covered Monday night’s county commission meeting. Tell me a bit about what happened- there were some interesting characters there.

Kelly Kenoyer: Yeah, it was a lot more exciting than I had previously expected. Sometimes budgets go through really easily, but I always find budget meetings to be a fascinating intersection of the politically active members of a community. In this case, there were some really enthusiastic pickleball club members at the meeting, who hoped to get several tennis courts replaced with Pickleball courts. Here’s Steve Morrissey.

“When my head hit the pillow last night it fell into a big dream. I dreamt there were several dedicated pickleball courts close to every house and apartment in New Hanover County.”

BS: Wow. Was the dream realized?

KK: No. The commissioners did not address pickleball at all.

BS: Ok, well that’s too bad. But that wasn’t the main issue of the night for public speakers, was it?

KK: No, a really large contingent of folks showed up to fight the tax increase that’s been built into the budget. To clarify, and so we don’t get in trouble with the communications folks at the county, it’s not that the actual tax rate for the county went up- it actually went down.

BS: Ok, that’s a neat trick. Let’s unpack that a little bit.

KK: So the new tax rate is five cents above revenue neutral because of the recent revaluation by the county. Everyone’s houses are valued higher this year, so their real tax burden has gone up, too. The budget is set at $461 million dollars, which is a 15% increase over last year.

That made a lot of folks very angry, and they said so to the commissioners.

Resident Nick Craig: “I’m a 24-year-old homeowner in New Hanover County. And the fact that we're looking at raising average tax rates of 12% on property owners in New Hanover County is ridiculous. It makes absolutely no sense. And it sets up Wilmington to not be financially sustainable in the future. I’ll end with that, thank you.”

BS: Now, we’ve seen the commission fly unphased through negative comments in the past, what was the impact on Monday night?

KK: With so much pushback, it wasn’t too surprising that the vote was split. But it was interesting that it didn’t split along party lines. Republican Deb Hays and Democrat Rob Zapple both wanted to revisit the budget to lower the tax burden.

Here’s Commissioner Rob Zapple: “Between the CARES Act and the American rescue plan money that the school system is receiving Over $88 million it has there, with our own fund balances as mentioned before - $60 million. That is there as a fund balance that has to be protected, but can be used. We have the money from the sale of the hospital, the revenue Stabilization Fund over $300 million…. There are ways to account for and to move this money one way or the other, that gives us the amount of money that we would need to be able to lower that tax rate.”

KK: Both of them received cheers from the audience after their speeches.

BS: But it still didn’t go their way.

KK: No it did not. Chair Julia Olson-Boseman won the vote with help from Democrat Jonathon Barfield and Republican Bill Rivenbark. But she did get heckled by the crowd when she explained why it was so important to fund education.

Olson-Boseman: “I'm not going to apologize for this budget for what we're doing for education…. And I think that we were absolutely stunned by the poverty that exists. I mean, stunned.”

Heckler: “So raise their rent!”

Olson-Boseman: “Sir. Do you interrupt your wife like this?”

Heckler: “Yeah, actually, all the time!”

Olson-Boseman: “That’s probably why she's not here with you.”

They received boos from the audience at the vote, but it got through.

BS: So yeah, that was quite a night.

KK: Yeah, it was quite the night. Ben, you covered the joint city council-county meeting this morning, did the county budget come up?

BS: It was there, it was all around the conversation, because part of what is going on is both a quarter-cent sales tax increase and a $50 million housing bond. And Commissioner Rob Zapple and Deb Hays both brought up the fact that we are asking voters- and they are very much thinking about the residents as voters- to consider this in the same year as they have had a tax increase and, of course, COVID-19. So it was very much part of the conversation.

KK: Yeah, they got a lot of angry residents yesterday, I’m assuming they’re thinking about whether those people would be interested in voting for even higher taxes next year. Did they talk at all about alternate funding sources?

BS: Yeah, I’m glad you bring that up, because Deb Hays very similar to what Rob Zapple brought up on Monday night, she was considering asking the hospital sale foundation, which has a considerable amount of money to invest. The answer was sort of, it won’t be ready in time.

Basically, the foundation has not even invested the money it has, so it might be two or three years before we start to see a return. So it’s not really a viable income source right now. But it’s interesting that they were sort of casting about for other ways that they could pay for this stuff without putting additional burdens on the taxpayers.

KK: We are at least a year out from actually having a housing bond anyway, so I am kind of curious about how much of a time difference it would really be. Maybe they could do both?

BS: It’s definitely a plan B. I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. I mean, the housing bond is a 10-year plan, housing as an issue is not going away. The idea of the hospital sale foundation is that it generates $45 to $50 million every year, in perpetuity, so you probably haven’t heard the last of that idea.

KK: Great, well, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

BS: I absolutely agree! Alright Kelly, thank you so much for joining us.

KK: Thank you, Ben!

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.
Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.