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What’s in Wilmington’s newly passed budget?

Karolina Grabowska = Pexels

The city's budget went up by $100 million, in large part because of the planned Thermo Fisher building purchase.

The City of Wilmington just passed its budget for next year, including major investments for the purchase of the Thermo Fisher building.

City staff have said the purchase will not cause an increase in taxes, and the property tax rate has stayed the same at 39.5 cents per $100 of valuation.

The purchase of the building and its connected properties will cost the city about $70 million, the budget document says “it will save the taxpayers between $22 to $28 million in construction costs alone.”

The cost is being covered by some modest fee increases and some lucky interest rates on city bonds. All told, this year’s budget is about $100,000,000 more than last year’s, mostly because of the acquisition of the new campus.

Other than that one major change, the city’s budget is largely the same as last year’s.

The city’s allocation for nonprofits is largely unchanged — it went from $566,000 to $576,125. The difference is entirely driven by incremental increases built into the contracts, according to the city’s public information office.

The police budget has increased by 5%, from $38.7 million to $40.8 million.

Notably, the 2024 budget proposes the creation of a Housing & Neighborhood Services Department.

The new department will combine code enforcement, two public service compliance officers, and two community development block grant programs.

According to the city’s budget, “The promotion of these divisions into a single department will ensure greater emphasis on services that are increasingly important to City Council and the residents of the city.”

Combining the programs will help with efficient use of resources, and there will be a new department director to administer the programs.

Councilman Luke Waddell questioned the value of adding the new department with a high-payed department head salary, and City Manager Tony Caudle defended the item.

"There's not only more money being put into housing by council, but there's more of an emphasis on housing throughout the community," he said, adding that homelessness and housing are taking up more time for government and deserve more dedicated attention from a department.

Waddell said the creation of the new department caught him off guard, and should have been discussed more in work sessions ahead of the official votes in council. Kevin Spears said he agreed that it deserved more discussion.

But other council members, like Clifford Barnett, said the new department is worthwhile. It's the first new department in 15 years for the city.

The city is also continuing its prior commitment to affordable housing with 1 cent on the property tax rate dedicated to affordable housing efforts. That means the budget for affordable housing will “benefit from any natural property value growth,” according to the budget language.

Waddell also brought up the "SafeLight" red-light camera program, which he said cost the city $222,000 in 2022.

"It seems to me like a losing proposition," he said.

City Manager Tony Caudle responded that the program helped reduce traffic crashes, so it's a safety measure rather than intended to bring in revenue. The cameras act as a deterrent for those who would run red lights.

Councilman Neil Anderson suggested it's a bit late to consider removing the item, but said it should be top priority to look at data on the success of the program at the start of the next budget cycle.

The city pays for the service, but revenue from fines go towards New Hanover County schools. Several councilors, including both Charlie Rivenbark and Kevin Spears, said the program is worthwhile for the safety benefits.

Spears said, "We are the highest in North Carolina for crashes," he said, citing a presentation from earlier in the council meeting. "We have seen people crash, we've seen people getting run over. I think that just might be the cost we have to pay for safety in our community."

The city budget passed almost unanimously, with Luke Waddell again dissenting on the section of the budget which grants city council raises.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on 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.