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From 70% to 18%: Leland town council discusses new potential property tax rate

Hundreds of residents sit and watch a Leland mayor and council meeting in the chambers. Many are standing along the walls. One elderly woman sits on the floor in the center of the frame. An elderly man seated in a chair to her left stares at the camera.
Nikolai Mather/WHQR
Hundreds of Leland residents showed up for the mayor and council meeting on March 21st to protest a proposed 70% property tax hike.

After last month's chaotic meeting, the Leland town council decided to revisit their budget plans. The new proposal is much more scaled back.

It looks like Leland residents may see a dramatically smaller property tax increase.

On Tuesday, the Leland Town Council took their widely-reviled budget proposal back to the drawing board in a brief workshop session. That night, council members decided to change their proposed 2024-2025 property tax rate from 39 cents to 27 cents for every $100 of property. That's an 18% increase from last year's 23 cents — still an uptick, but significantly less of one.

Council members said they were moved by the public outcry over their initial plans, which would have raised the property tax rate by 70%. Hundreds of outraged residents attended a town council meeting on March 21, where they demanded the town find a new course of action.

Now, the council is trying to develop and pass a new budget.

Same priorities, new plan

Council member Bill McHugh said that council is sticking to their initial priorities.

"They remain with infrastructure and public safety," he told WHQR. "So what we did last night was we asked the staff to prepare us a budget at a 27 cent tax rate — understanding that those were the priorities — and to show us options of what we'll be able to do to accomplish those goals at that tax rate."

The initial plan was to hire ten more public safety employees, five for the fire department and five for the police department. The previous budget also included money to replace Leland's fire truck and vehicles for the new police officers. McHugh said the council was concerned about keeping Leland's public safety up to scratch with similarly-sized towns. But feedback from the public changed his mind.

"Overwhelmingly, people are happy with our police department. People are happy with our fire department," he said. "They're happy with the overwhelming majority of our roads, and the ones that they're not happy with are roads that we're focused on repairing, repaving, and expanding."

Town manager David Hollis and other employees will be developing the new budget under the 27-cent constraint. Obviously, it won't be able to cover as much as the 39-cent constraint.

"We're not going to get roads and a firetruck off of 27 cents," said council member Veronica Carter during the meeting. "Well, we can, but we'll lose something else in return. So to continue that process of getting to the services that we need, as a town this size, we're gonna have to gradually look at increasing this."

"This is going to give us an opportunity to still accomplish many of our goals — just in a slower output," said McHugh.

'Incredibly disappointing'

Some were excited about the outcome. But for others, the mood was far from jubilant. Veronica Carter, who has served on the council since 2019, said she found the hostility — and in some cases, threats — from her constituents "incredibly disappointing."

"I hoped we could remember that we're going to be neighbors, regardless of what happens. And that we need to treat each other with a certain amount of respect and civility. That has not happened," she said.

Much of the backlash had been concentrated on Hollis, who has been Leland's town manager since 2011. The Wilmington StarNews reported in 2022 that Hollis was Leland's highest paid employee, making $176,867.86 a year. Some residents believe that salary is too high.

"If you have a problem with anyone on staff, including David Hollis, you come to us because he ultimately works for us," she said. "All I ask is that you remember that they are people, they have feelings, and that they have a job to do. And they're doing their job, frankly, to the best of their abilities, whether you agree with what they do."

Mayor Brenda Bozeman agreed.

"Don't go bad-mouthing the staff. If you're gonna bad-mouth anybody, bad-mouth us," she said.

What now?

This budget workshop session included some discussion of the town's key needs. But so far, council members have not set anything in stone. They simply asked Hollis to come back with a budget that squares with 27 cents.

"We'll find out Monday [the 15th] whether it'll be ready to be presented on Thursday [the 18th]," McHugh told WHQR.

The earliest that the town council could vote on the budget is in May. The town council hopes to wrap it up by June 30. In the meantime, they're encouraging residents to continue respectfully submitting feedback.

"We've got folks that work for NASA in this community. You know, this is the kind of feedback that you usually have to pay a lot of money for, and we can get it for free just by our folks being engaged in government," said McHugh. "Reach out to us. We want to hear from you."

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.