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Wilmington and NHC officials agree on housing bond, transportation tax - now they have to sell it to voters

Benjamin Schachtman
The City of Wilmington and New Hanover County have two initiatives ready to go on the ballot for the 2022 general election.

For years, the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County have struggled with poor public transportation and a lack of affordable housing. At a joint meeting on Tuesday, officials agreed to move forward with two major initiatives to tackle those problems -- although many details remain to be worked out.

“I don't want to put this off anymore … we've been kicking this can down the road. So long there’s not much can left," said city councilman Charlie Rivenbark, and he wasn’t alone.

Officials all seemed to feel the weight of having side-stepped and deferred the issues of public transportation and affordable housing for so long.

By the end of the meeting, they’d agreed to put two measures -- a ¼ cent sales tax increase and a $50 million housing bond -- on the ballot. The county will have to approve them officially in April or May of next year, before appearing on the ballot in the general election in November 2022.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said he was ready to put the issue to the community who have, for the last several elections, routinely raised housing and transportation as key problems.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the people in this community in this country, they want to have affordable housing, then they're gonna go for it. They want good public transportation, they're gonna go to the polls and support it. They don't, they're gonna vote it down," he said.

While officials agreed it was up to voters, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to sell the deal.

Public transportation

The 1/4-cent sales tax increase will generate roughly $144 million over ten years, although less than half will go to WAVE.
New Hanover County
City of Wilmington
The 1/4-cent sales tax increase will generate roughly $144 million over ten years, although less than half will go to WAVE.

Current plans would spend almost less than half of the increased sales tax revenue on WAVE’s bus system, with another 16% going towards the ambitious, $1 billion rail realignment project that could move commercial rail out of Wilmington and replace it with light passenger rail.

The other roughly 40% will go towards bike and pedestrian paths -- that won’t help the region’s struggling bus system, but officials like Councilman Kevin O’Grady believe it will help win over beach towns and those in the county not directly invested in public transportation.

“I think it's important that we have plans for Carolina Beach and Kure Beach and throughout the county, so that we can garner the support... Because there are parts of the total package that people may not support, but I think they'll vote for it, to see the future of bicycle pass in the neighborhoods. So some of this isn't, is drafted, but the idea of attracting votes," he said.

Spreading the money around could garner more support, but Commissioner Jonathan Barfield saw potential drawbacks: “So my big concern is that if you water things down, you eventually don't accomplish it, if you spread the money too thin...I think you just need to have a laser-like focus and accomplish one goal."

Related: Can WAVE transit outrun its toxic past, and turn things around for public transit?

To that point, Commissioner Rob Zapple asked WAVE Executive Director Marie Parker if $65 million over ten years from the sales tax could get the authority to its goal of 15-minute wait time on key routes.

Her answer?


So, officials asked Parker to come back with a budget. Parker asked, “I just want to get some clarification is, is the request to present the best plan with the $65 million budget or to present the best plan?”

After a pause, officials said they’d like to see both, by the beginning of August.

Lots of details to work out

While there was unanimous support -- or, at least, no dissent -- on moving forward with both the sales tax and the housing bond, there are still a lot of details to work out. How much money will actually go to WAVE? How will the housing bond be spent?

Below: Proposed breakdown of a $50-million housing bond.

Ben Schachtman

Mayor Saffo said, "[it's our] job to make sure that we tell them exactly how we're going to spend the money. And where we're going to spend the money. I think that's very important too.”

Related: Wilmington and New Hanover officials want to spend $50 million on affordable housing, but don't quite know how yet

To do that, the city and county are forming another ad hoc committee. This time, it will steer the fine-tuning of the initiatives, and -- of course -- to help sell them to the voters.

Below: Joint meeting of Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

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.