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New Hanover County commissioners approve $543-million budget in contentious 3-2 vote

New Hanover County commissioners at their Monday, June 17 meeting.
Benjamin Schachtman
New Hanover County commissioners at their Monday, June 17 meeting.

This morning, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners passed a $543.1 million budget that avoided both a tax hike and dipping into the county's reserve fund. It’s a win for fiscal conservatives, who saw an 8% spending reduction. But other commissioners were displeased with the result.

The New Hanover Board of County Commissioners approved a $543 budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year in a 3-2 vote during its Monday meeting.

The county faced several external financial pressures — including inflation, increased wages for county employees, significant shortfalls for the school district and Sheriff’s Office, and a property tax base that has lagged behind property values (next year properties will be reevaluated). The county also faced some internal restrictions, namely the hesitance by a majority of commissioners to implement a tax increase or dip into the county's reserve funds.

The budget allocates an additional $9.5 million to the schools, including $5.5 in operating funds, and additional funding for nurses, mental health workers, and pre-K classrooms. The School system was facing a $20 million shortfall — and had asked for closer to $10 million in operating funds. Monday’s decision also effectively cut Port City United — the county-wide violence prevention program that began after a shooting at New Hanover High School in 2021 — from the budget.

Non-county nonprofit agencies also received less funding than they had hoped for this year. While the FY24-25 nonprofit funding level of $1.6 million is the same as last year, the county’s non-government agency funding committee had recommended significantly more; as a result, nonprofits received about a third less than recommended. Commissioner Rob Zapple put forward a plan he had worked out with county staff to increase that by making smaller cuts elsewhere in the budget, but his motion failed to gain traction.

Zapple suggested postponing the vote until later in the month. He also noted that the $300 million in the County’s Revenue Stabilization Fund, created from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC), could be used to fill some of the gaps in this year’s budget, but emphasized that the Board lacked the necessary four votes to use it (the fund's interest has become a regular part of the county's budget, but dipping into the principal has been a more contentious issue).

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield voiced his disapproval of the budget, saying it was the “worst he’s ever seen” in his 16 years on the Board. Because New Hanover is the third wealthiest county in the state, Barfield said that it has the money to adequately fund the school system and Port City United. He added that one of the reasons he voted to sell the NHRMC in 2020 was to ensure there are adequate resources in the area.

“We have $300 million sitting right there that can be used today to help our public schools, to help Port City United, to help fund the nonprofits in our community,” Barfield said. “We're stealing it. We're sitting on our purses. We're sitting on our pocketbook.”

Barfield also contrasted the county’s austerity with a significant, county-funded raise for Cape Fear Community College President Jim Morton.

“How you can get someone a $43,000 raise and a $25,000 bonus when your own manager's not making anywhere near that and your own employees aren't seeing the same type of an increase. It is irresponsible,” Barfield said.

Democrats Barfield and Zapple, who said the cuts would cause harm to the community, voted against the budget. Republican board members Chair Bill Rivenbark, Vice Chair LeAnn Pierce, and Commissioner Dane Scalise voted in favor of the budget with minimal comment on it. Barfield, Rivenbark, and Scalise are all up for re-election this November.

Public commenters showed up to support PCU and school funding

During the budget’s public comment period, about a half-dozen New Hanover residents, including some students, voiced their support for Port City United. PCU connects NHCS students with local non-profits, and staffs a 24/7 contact center for individuals needing support with mental health, food security, and housing issues.

In March, Stephen Barnett, a high-ranking Port City United employee was arrested for allegedly helping a minor flee the scene of an attempted murder. A second PCU employee was also arrested on felony charges earlier this year. Neither have been convicted, but both were promptly fired. The incidents amped up concerns voiced last year by some officials, most notably Scalise and Pierce.

Related — The Dive: PCU’s whirlwind comes to an end

Jamir Jumoke, a case manager who has worked with PCU, spoke at the meeting and said that if commissioners went into the community and talked to students, parents, and non-profit leaders they would find “tangible” work being done by the group.

Several speakers also addressed likely cuts in the school system. The additional operating funding could help the district save dozens of positions, but in a worst-case scenario roughly 200 positions could still be lost, some removed through retirement and resignation, and some potentially through layoffs. Some advocates asked the county to fund the district’s entire $20 million shortfall — although the Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust only asked for about half of that in new annual funding.

“It’s never the right time, evidently, for us as a community to speak up and tell you we need more money for our schools,” Ashley Spanbauer, the lead organizer of New Hanover for All, said during the public comment period, said.

“I know we're paying our Sheriffs a bunch more money this year because we don't have enough sheriffs [deputies], and they're going to be working overtime,” Tim Merrick, a candidate for the NHCS Board of Education who spoke at the public comment period, said. “Our teachers have been given additional duties, and they are not being given overtime.”

Related — The Dive: The New Hanover County budget shortfall we aren't talking about much

The budget provides around $17.4 million more for the Sheriff’s Office, a roughly 25% increase, but did see a reduction in the overtime rate from double to one and a half — saving the county about $1.3 million (a concession for conservatives like Scalise, who said they didn’t want to cut public safety funding — but also didn’t want to raise taxes or touch the county’ revenue fund).

With funding changes, program elimination, and other edits, this approved budget will go into effect on July 1, when the 2024-25 fiscal year begins.

Below, the FY25 Recommended Budget (Note: the final budget will include some changes):

Walker is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying Journalism and English. She has served as a writer and editor for UNC's student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, where she covered housing and the environment. Her reporting interests center around community, context and public history. Outside of her work, you can find her DJing for UNC's student radio station, running and taking film pictures. You can reach her at wlivingston@unc.edu.