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New Hanover's county manager can now tap into $350 million for school safety. How will that actually work?

New Hanover County recently approved tapping into $350 million in hospital sale proceeds to address school safety.

In the wake of a shooting at New Hanover High School, county commissioners approved a resolution, tapping part of $350 million in hospital sale revenue to address the issue of school safety. But the resolution offered no program or financial specifics, leaving it unclear how things will actually work moving forward.

During a joint meeting of commissioners and school board members on September 4, four days after the shooting, county chair Julia Olson-Boseman proposed a resolution.

“So I would like to make a motion, that allows the county manager to access part of, not all of it, whatever amount is necessary from the $350 million we have set aside to address this crisis in our community,” she said.

Related: In the wake of Monday's shooting, NHC commissioners will tap $350 million in hospital sale funds to address school safety

The motion passed unanimously, but what does it mean? There was no written version of the motion that laid out what the guidelines for spending were — either in terms of what specific areas the funding would go to, or how funding would be approved.

County Manager Chris Coudriet said the basic foundation covers violence both in communities and in schools — and acknowledged, yes, that’s a very broad mandate.

“It is foundationally built around, what can we use these resources to help address community violence and the outcome or the symptom of that also play an out on school campuses," Coudriet said. "And that's a big call, there are a lot of things that can happen in the course of examining that and working with folks to determine what the right path ought to be.”

Asked if that could hypothetically include investments in law enforcement, the school system, and third-party community partners, Coudriet said yes.

And, although Coudriet said it’s very early to say what those investments could be, the county is hosting a meeting this Friday with stakeholders from the school system — teachers, administrators, parents, and others. Coudriet said the meeting won’t be public, but that there will be a report on it to the commissioners.

“So on September 20, there's going to be an update to the board. And that's just two weeks after their vote, to begin to tackle this issue," he said.

So, what happens when solutions are controversial? Things like fencing, cameras, metal detectors, and increased SROs will certainly have both support and opposition — so, how much transparency will there be about who is making the decisions, and who will answer for contentious ones?

“I think that's part of even what the board was expressing when it said, 'Okay, all right, community leaders begin to determine what to do so that not every decision on investment becomes a political decision.' And when I say political, I mean, elected officials weighing in," he said. "Are they going to know they're going to know 110% of everything that we do? Are there times that they're going to have to be the decider? No question, especially as it has the impacts on budgets they have to approve in the future years.”

As an example, Coudriet noted things like SROs with recurring annual costs would have to be approved by the commissioners — while one-time capital costs, like fencing or metal detectors, could be funded without board approval, although they would be kept in the loop.

Coudriet also said that pilot programs would be funded with an initial investment — if they’re successful they could get future investments from the county, with board approval as part of the budget. In other words, elected officials would eventually be accountable for those programs that continued.

Still, it’s clear that the resolution passed earlier this month gives Coudriet much wider financial discretion than he would otherwise have. According to the county, Coudriet would not be capped at the $90,000 limit for discretionary spending and $500,000 construction limit usually imposed on the county manager. However, Coudriet noted there are still guidelines on spending.

“We are not going to spend money that's inconsistent with state law or county fiscal policy," Coudriet said, noting that construction projects would also follow the usual bid process required by state law.

It’s not clear who will ultimately make some of the tough decisions on how to tackle community and school violence — the school board, the county commissioners, the county manager, or community leaders outside of government. And, to be fair, that’s in part because some of those decisions haven’t been clearly framed yet.

Take the example of metal detectors. While Coudriet said that's something he could approve funding for without board approval, it's not clear it would have to be approved by the New Hanover County District schools administration — essentially, by Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust — or if it would also require school board approval.

In short, there's a lot of money on the table and, right now, not a lot of clarity about how and where it will be spent.

To that end, Coudriet said that the county’s goal is to keep both commissioners and the public informed on what’s being discussed, what’s being spent, and what’s being done.

“There will be a lot of transparency and a lot of accountability, not only because it's the right thing to do, but our organization and expects and demands that and so we're going to offer that all along the way," he said.

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.