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New Hanover County chair wants to reduce taxes, after spearheading last year's increase

Chair Julia Olson-Boseman during the October 18 Board of Commissioners meeting.
Chair Julia Olson-Boseman

Last summer, New Hanover County chair Julia Olson-Boseman championed a controversial increase in taxes aimed, in large part, at raising teacher salaries. Now, she wants to cut taxes back to 'revenue neutral.'

In June of 2021, Olson-Boseman pushed for a budget that saw 15% more county spending, meaning a tax hike on top of the recent increase in property values (which went up 33% on average) — and property tax bills (which went up by more than 10%).

Some of this increased spending was generally popular — like nearly doubling the local supplement for teacher salaries — some of it, like nearly doubling commissioners’ stipend, less so.

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

Olson-Boseman defended her position against upset residents, and fellow commissioners Rob Zapple and Deb Hays, who both opposed the tax increase.

“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.”

Flash forward eight months to last week’s agenda review meeting: Olson-Boseman asked county staff to prepare a budget that would decrease taxes – rolling back the increase she spearheaded last year.

“At next budget work session. I — hopefully, we — would like to see a five-cent property tax decrease back to revenue-neutral," she said.

Olson-Boseman asked staff to consider alternative revenue streams, namely interest on escrow accounts from the sale of the hospital — roughly $300 million that commissioners have also eyeballed for affordable housing, public transit, revenue stabilization, and a 'rainy-day' fund (that could, for example, pay for post-hurricane debris removal instead of waiting for FEMA funds).

It's unclear if the interest alone on these accounts could fund a $24 million shortfall, the amount County Manager Chris Coudriet suggested would result from a 5-cent tax cut. Coudriet asked if Olson-Boseman intended to dip into the accounts themselves (that is, interest and principal, instead of just interest), Olson-Boseman asked him to bring the board of commissioners options.

Commissioners Hays and Zapple, who each voted against the 2021 tax hike, both said they'd like to see what a 'revenue neutral' budget actually looks like.

Asked what’s changed since last year, Olson-Boseman said, "I have done a lot of listening to the community and my fellow commissioners, as well as evaluating where we are and what we need to do in the best interest of our community. Lowering the tax rate, now that we have a potential source of revenue with the interest from our escrow accounts created from the hospital sale, is something we need to explore and we will be doing that in our budget process. We have the opportunity to ensure our services and initiatives continue, our goals and priorities as a board are accomplished, and our community is provided with what they need and expect – all while also providing a tax cut to residents. So our staff will be working to develop budget options that include revenue alternatives and a tax cut for the Commissioners to consider over the coming months."

Commissioners still have at least one budget work session planned and a final budget won’t get a vote until June.

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.