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A closer look at Leland's significant proposed tax increase

The fast-growing Town of Leland, in nothern Brunswick County.
Town of Leland
The fast-growing Town of Leland, in nothern Brunswick County.

On Thursday, the Leland town council will be holding a public meeting to hear feedback on the proposed 70% property tax hike. WHQR dives into the reasons behind the tax hike and the impacts it would have on locals.

They say that in life, only two things are certain: death and taxes. But this week, the town of Leland is experiencing anything but certainty about their taxes.

Last month, the town government announced that it had drafted a $56 million budget, which included a 70% increase in property tax rates. The proposal was met with near-universal outrage. If the budget passes as is, most town residents would pay hundreds more in property tax this year.

On Thursday, the mayor and council will be holding a public hearing devoted to the budget and tax hike. Here's what you need to know.

Why the jump?

The proposed property tax increase is to 39 cents per $100 of property valuation, a 16-cent jump from the 2022 rate of 23 cents. Each cent equals about $680,000 in tax revenue. This proposed increase would generate nearly $11 million in revenue.

The lion's share of this money would go towards resurfacing Leland's roads. Town council member Bill McHugh told WHQR that over the next twenty years, the town government plans to resurface all of the nearly 100 miles of roads in Leland city limits, or about 5 miles a year.

"On average, it costs a million dollars to resurface one mile of road. So currently, this part of the program is allocated $5.5 million dollars," he said.

The tax hike would also fund expansions to the police and fire departments of Leland, which McHugh said are struggling to keep up with industry standards and local growth. The plan right now is to create five more fire department jobs and hire five more officers. The expansion would also mean replacing and adding new vehicles to both public safety offices, including nine new police vehicles and a new fire truck. This funding, McHugh said, would allow fire and police to be "more proactive and less reactive."

"We hear constantly from our citizens about traffic issues – you know, speeding, rolling through stop signs, illegal U-turns," he said. "This will allow us to proactively enforce traffic to alleviate some of the calls on those officers, and to be proactively out in the community protecting and serving, not just responding to the barrage of needs as they happen."

Okay, but seriously: why the jump?

As expensive as they are, the three biggest projects fail to explain the whopping increase. McHugh said the real answer, as it often tends to be in Brunswick County, is growth.

In 2010, Leland still hovered at just over 1,000 residents. Now, it's at 31,000. But even with the explosion in population, Leland's property tax rate remained comparable to nearby municipalities like Navassa and Boiling Spring Lakes, whose 2022 rates were 28 cents and 23 cents, respectively.

More taxpayers does mean more public money. But it also means more people putting that public money to use: more people in need of law enforcement, good roads and municipal services. And in North Carolina, where municipalities and counties are barred from charging development impact fees, McHugh said exponential growth can eventually translate to exponential expenses.

"That increase in tax base absolutely helps assuage that. But it doesn't fully cover it," he said. "We're the fastest-growing municipality and the fastest-growing county in the state. Our challenges are very unique."

Those challenges are especially apparent in, for example, the town fire department. Its service extends beyond Leland into Belville and unincorporated areas of Brunswick. Though the county commission has levied a "fire fee" on residents outside city limits, it has hit the state-mandated maximum for how much it can charge for fire services. The remaining operational costs fall on Leland residents.

Another major factor: the town of Leland is undertaking a new fiscal strategy of purchasing equipment outright instead of financing or renting. McHugh said this move will help them avoid wasting money on interest rates, which he said are already high and rising.

"[We want] to save money in the future, but there is an upfront cost today," he said.

Resident concerns

Obviously, a 70% tax hike came as a shock to most Leland residents. Realtor and former town council candidate Nicholas Newell said it was totally unexpected.

Newell told WHQR that he thinks the budget still needs work. He pointed out that the town had previously presented much lower rate increases at 32 and 35 cents.

"To me, the mere fact that they presented options at those lower rates proves it's possible to run the government at a cheaper rate," he said. "I certainly am not going to sit here and say that I know how to better around the town than they do, because I don't. But I don't think you have to be as well-versed as they are to look at a budget and realize some of this stuff can wait."

And he doesn't think Leland's rapid growth totally explains the tax hike, either. Leland has grown quickly, he said, but not quickly enough to warrant a 70% jump.

"Let's say that over the last five years, every year, the town of Leland grew by 5,000 people. And last year for some unforeseen reason it grew by 15. And there's just no way that they could have projected a three times growth in one year. Then, [a tax increase] makes sense to me," he said. "But that didn't happen."

For many residents, the tax hike has been more than a shock: it's been straight-up enraging. In the run-up to Thursday's meeting, many residents have taken to NextDoor, Facebook, or town council comment fields to vent their frustrations — occasionally, Newell said, getting "nasty."

"I hope [the mayor and council] truly listen to what people are saying," he said. "Because I think if they truly listen, they're going to hear some valid points."

McHugh told WHQR that he understands why residents are upset.

"I don't blame them. This is serious. You know, a homeowner with a $350,000 home is looking at a $560 annual increase. We're not talking about pennies here. [These are] real people with real money. And that is not lost on me, that is not lost on any of us. You know, this keeps me up at night," he said. "But I'm looking at the future of the long-term health of our community. And I believe we have to act now to secure that future."

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.