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Breaking down county, municipal budget changes across the Cape Fear region

Benjamin Schachtman
/
WHQR
Lines of budget code from the fiscal year 2024-2025 recommended budget.

Here’s a roundup of the biggest changes — and occasional controversies — in the Brunswick, Pender, and New Hanover county budgets and some of the major towns and cities within them.

This year, county and municipal governments across Cape Fear spent months pouring over millions in tax revenue and proposing respective budgets for the 2024-25 fiscal year, which began on July 1. Local governments held meetings and heard feedback from their constituents — including criticisms of rising tax rates, and growing frustrations with underfunded schools and public programs.

Brunswick County

Brunswick County’s total adopted budget for FY 24-25 is $392.4 million, a 12.8% increase from last year’s budget. It was unanimously approved by the Board of County Commissioners on June 17.

The county has been growing at an unprecedented rate, ranking as the fastest-growing county in North Carolina for the past two years, according to the Census Bureau’s population estimates.

With an estimated population increase of about 4.5% from 2022-23 and a number of new controversial residential and commercial developments brought in contentious conversations about how the county its the municipalities would adjust, both financially and structurally.

The Brunswick County Board of Elections requested funding for two more elections employees to account for population growth, which the county commission denied in budget meetings. In April, WHQR reported that the county commission and board of elections agreed on $200,000 of funding for one full-time elections employee position and upcoming elections.

Both of the operating budgets for Brunswick County Schools and Brunswick County Community College increased this year. BCS saw a 2.6 increase in its operating budget and BCC saw a 14.5% increase, while also receiving a $350,000 grant for tuition assistance.

While the county did not see a property tax increase on the existing $34.20 for every $100 of property, some Brunswick municipalities raised their rates and saw some negative responses from the public.

Leland

The initial budget that the Leland Town Council proposed in March included a property tax of 39 cents for every $100 of property owned. Last year, the rate was 23 cents, so this would have been about a 70% increase.

Hundreds of residents spoke out at the meeting where this was introduced — including some from a group called Better Government 4 Leland, which adamantly advocated for a zero percent tax increase.

WHQR reported that this increase would have brought the town $11 million in revenue and mainly been used for police and fire upgrades, along with updating road infrastructure to adapt to the growing population.

After community backlash, the council revised the budget to scale back the proposed tax to 27 cents in April, still an 18% uptick. For instance, a home now valued at $200,000 would be responsible for paying $540 in taxes under the new rate as opposed to $460 under the previous rate.

The council unanimously passed the budget in May.

Southport

The Southport Board of Alderman followed in the footsteps of Brunswick County neighbor Leland and approved a property tax increase of 3.5 cents for every $100.

Because of Southport’s recent water and sewer merger with Brunswick Regional Water & Sewer H2GO, there was a roughly $1.2 million gap in revenue that the board appropriated from the general fund to cover. Areas that the city left unfunded include renovations for municipal buildings, routine street resurfacing and replacing older fire trucks and ambulances. The budget anticipated borrowing $2 million from the general fund to accomplish the latter.

New Hanover County

New Hanover County’s total adopted budget for FY 24-25 is $543.1 million — about 7.5% less than FY 23-24's planned spending of $588.3 million. During the 2023-24 fiscal year, the property tax was 45 cents, a half-cent decrease from the previous year.

Property tax rates will remain at 45 cents at 100 dollars of value. The tax base increased by about 2.2% this year, according to the adopted budget. Next year, the county will re-evaluate its tax base and consider population growth — during the last re-evaluation process, the overall tax base increased by nearly a third, leading to a tax cut.

Education was the highest area of expenditure for the county’s general fund, followed by public safety and human services. This year, there was no “principal” use of the county’s revenue stabilization fund (a roughly $300 million reserve from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center), although $6.1 million of the county’s interest earnings from the fund from last year were transferred into the general fund for usage.

The budget has a shortfall of spending on education, as NHCS requested $10 million in additional operating funds but received around $5.5 million — something that community advocates and even some commissioners took issue with. Commissioners noted that they also provided roughly $4 million in recurring funding to support pre-K classrooms, nurses, and mental health workers. After the county budget was passed, the board spent three meetings mulling over the NHCS budget before passing it.

This budget maintains its existing funding of 12 Pre-K classrooms, but not the classrooms funded by the Head Start Grant that NHCS will not be awarded again this year. On the other hand, the county maintained level funding of Cape Fear Community College — at $11.9 million — although the college requested several million more.

Notably, this budget also eliminated the social service program Port City United but offered a “continued commitment” of $3 million for the county’s Workforce Housing Services Program. This program aims to connect developers with those looking for workforce housing in the community. Haven Place and WARM NC are two groups that have been assisted by this program.

Wilmington

The City of Wilmington approved a $298 million budget for FY 24-25 on June 18, a day after the county commission approved its contentious counterpart. The city increased its property tax to 42 cents per $100. While the city cited growing personnel costs and infrastructure needs, the city received vocal pushback — in part because city council also approved purchasing the former ThermoFisher building as its new city hall.

This budget brought other new tax and fee changes, like a $25 vehicle tax and a one percent increase to the current stormwater fee.

Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach approved a $22.4 million general fund in its proposed FY 24-25 balanced budget on May 31. This year’s fund saw an increase of $1.8 million compared to last year.

The budget includes a property tax increase of 9% — going from 21.5 cents to 23.5 cents per 100$. The budget also includes a 4% tax increase in utility rates.

According to reporting from WECT, Carolina Beach Town Manager Bruce Oakley deemed these hikes necessary because of local inflation and growth in the area. The budget follows Wilmington, Leland, and Southport in increasing local property taxes, even though the New Hanover municipalities are not experiencing the same population hikes.

Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach’s proposed $17 million budget for FY 24-25 includes no property tax increase and a roughly five percent water and sewage tax increase. The town’s Board of Aldermen is also considering a merger with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.

Pender County

In June, Pender County approved a total general fund budget for FY 24-25 of $106,355,051, an almost six percent increase from last year.

The county’s tax rate — which was increased by about 9 cents last year — remained the same at 77 cents per $100 of property owned.

The budget will fund around 27 municipal positions with the general fund, including eight additional deputies and a detective for the Pender County Sheriff’s Department.

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.