2015-16 New Hanover County budget includes 2-cent property tax increase

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New Hanover County homeowners will pay higher property taxes in the coming year. The board of commissioners approved a 2-cent increase in the tax rate Monday as part of a $302 million operating budget for 2015-16.

The vote was 3-2, with Commissioners Woody White and Skip Watkins holding out for a budget with no tax increase. But Chairman Jonathan Barfield and Commissioners Beth Dawson and Rob Zapple said the tax increase is necessary to help pay for voter-approved bonds for parks and Cape Fear Community College and plan for the future.

Dawson called the budget “responsible and prudent” and one that supports education, economic development, and county employees, who will get a cost-of-living raise as well as potential merit increases.

White and Watkins endorsed an alternative White proposed that would eliminate a 1.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment for employees, push back the impending issuance of public school bonds and the remaining CFCC bonds from July to December (to delay interest payments until next budget year) and eliminate a proposal to subsidize day care for 100 children to supplement state and federal day care subsidies.

Two cents on the tax rate represents about $6 million — money, White said, that’s being transferred “from the private sector to the public sector.” The tax increase could be avoided by reducing or eliminating some expenditures and using more money from the fund balance, he said.

Added Watkins, “Today I speak for a majority of our citizens when I say, ‘Don’t raise my taxes.’”

Within minutes after the meeting, White fired off a tweet directed at fellow Republican Dawson’s support of the final budget.  “Comm Dawson votes with the Democrats: more welfare, more taxes,” read the tweet.

Dawson, who said she’s not on Twitter, was taken aback. Later, she said she was “disappointed that a fellow commissioner would violate the … ethics policy by being so disrespectful to a fellow commissioner.”

Watkins is also a Republican; Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Barfield, who is the board’s chairman, and Rob Zapple joined Dawson in supporting the budget.

The rate increase will add $50 a year to the property tax bill on a house valued at $250,000. Barfield said the additional 2 cents will go solely toward bond debt that was approved by the voters, and emphasized that the county has raised property taxes only once, by 1.2 cents, since 2008.

The budget was the result of more than a month of discussions by the board over how much property taxes should increase to cover deb payments for voter-approved bond issues for Cape Fear Community College and New Hanover County parks. County Manager Chris Coudriet’s original budget called for a 5-cent increase to cover payments due. The proposed increase was cut after the commissioners agreed to eliminate or delay some projects, use some of the county’s $60 million-plus fund balance and make other adjustments to cover the payments.

Although he didn’t comment during the meeting, Zapple said the main problem he has with the proposal White and Watkins supported is that it uses one-time funds to pay for a long-term obligation. “Having that money helps for one year only,” he said.

In all, the budget uses about $8.5 million of the county’s fund balance, a figure that will keep the savings account slightly above the 21 percent minimum stated by county policy. Residents of the unincorporated area will see a pay a bit less — 0.9 cents per $100 of property value — for fire services. The fire service tax rate will drop from 7.9 cents to 7 cents.

Barfield opened Monday’s meeting with a moment of silence for the victims of last week’s shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The invocation by Rick Houston, senior pastor of Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, also called for “healing and peace” for Charleston and the victims’ families.

email Tricia Vance at [email protected]

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