Budgets adopted by local beach towns for the 2014-15 fiscal year reveal overlapping government priorities including water and sewer infrastructure improvements, public safety, employee compensation and healthy general fund reserves.
Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Topsail Beach have all recently raised rates to improve water and sewer infrastructure.
“In a beach community, it’s much more important to keep up with infrastructure because …that infrastructure is usually built for non-saltwater environments so it does tend to corrode and deteriorate a little bit faster,” said Carolina Beach Town Manager Michael Cramer during a July 1 phone interview.
Carolina Beach raised water and sewer rates by 5 percent in the 2014-15 budget to fund improvements for 25 to 30 percent of the town’s infrastructure.
Topsail Beach is also prioritizing improvements to water and sewer infrastructure. To meet debt obligations beginning in the 2013-14 fiscal year budget, the base fee for the town’s water and sewer service jumped from $15 per month to $30 per month effective May 2013.
Wrightsville Beach instated a 51 cent increase per unit, or 750 gallons of water, in its 2014-15 budget, amounting to an average hike of $22 per bimonthly bill, to begin both short- and long-term improvements.
Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens said the town hopes to complete infrastructure improvements within a year and a half. The process for long-term improvements will begin with a water needs assessment and a rate study.
“The primary goal is to find a long-term source of water. You need to be able to plan for the future and we’ve got a lot of older wells,” Owens said during a July 1 phone interview, adding the town bumps against maximum production levels during busy summer weekends.
The town hopes to find a long-term source of water in the island town but due to limited land space, it will also consider a partnership with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.
Public safety costs are higher in small beach towns than in towns of comparable size inland due to the summer swell in population. Wrightsville Beach allocated $4.66 million for public safety in the 2014-15 budget — almost half of its general fund expenditures — compared to Carolina Beach’s allocation of $3.21 million.
Owens noted the town included debt service of almost $600,000 for the public safety building and a new fire truck in the public safety budget, while Carolina Beach puts debt service into a separate category.
Wrightsville Beach staffs 24 police officers compared to Carolina Beach’s 27 officers. Topsail Beach employs 8 officers with a public safety budget of $967,111.
Competitive employee compensation was a priority in the Carolina Beach budget, which provided a 2 percent cost of living adjustment and a 3 percent merit raise for employees.
Cramer said he arrived at those numbers from a N.C. League of Municipalities survey, which reported an average of 2 percent for cost of living adjustments and between 2.5 and 4 percent merit increases for 2014-15 fiscal year budgets.
Owens said the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen will consider a 2 percent merit increase for town employees in December. Town employees received a 2 percent cost of living adjustment in the 2013-14 budget plus a 1 percent merit increase.
Topsail Beach employees received a 2 percent merit increase in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The beach communities also emphasized the importance of maintaining healthy general fund reserves.
“Beach towns have two strikes against them when it comes to reserves,” Owens said. “One, you don’t start getting your tax money in until January-ish. So you’ve got to survive off your reserves. That’s one of the reasons you have your reserves, in order to pay your bills until that money trickles in. But the other is, in the event there is a storm, most of the storms are reimbursable events. You’ve got to go out and fix what you need to fix and over time, you may get reimbursed.”
Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach both maintain fund reserves with 50 percent of their total budgets. Topsail Beach currently operates with a fund reserve of 22 percent of its total budget.
Topsail Beach Town Manager Tim Holleman said big expenditures, like the town’s $5 million contribution to beach renourishment every five or six years, have strained reserve funds. Topsail Beach does not receive federal assistance for beach renourishment.
The town is focusing on restoring its reserves in coming years.
“Our biggest thing is rebuilding the fund balance,” Holleman said during a June 27 phone interview.
Topsail Beach officials hope to secure federal authorization for beach renourishment in the future. A higher percentage of the 29.3 cents per $100 tax rate is earmarked for beach renourishment in the meantime.