White takes leadership of county board

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Following the seating of a new board member, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners is under new leadership this week, with environmental regulation and travel policy being some of the first policies where the change could have an impact.

Commissioner Woody White was unanimously chosen as the board’s chairman during the Dec. 19 meeting, while commissioner Skip Watkins also won all five votes for position as vice chairman. The votes were the first cast by newly elected commissioner Patricia Kusek, who was forced to wait two weeks before taking her seat as the county’s board of election conducted a recount that affirmed her 360-vote win.

White said that under the new leadership, the board would look to keep spending in check.

“This commission will be much more fiscally conservative than the last two,” White said. “The county government has grown too much, too fast.”

White said there would be “ample” time for the commission to consider budget changes, noting that better management practices will be pursued, though spending cuts may be necessary to prevent future tax hikes.

The change in leadership comes as the board is set to consider changes to the special use permit, an industrial policy that the business community said is restricting job growth in the region.

Kusek said the SUP revisions were one of the top agenda items for the newly seated board. The board won’t consider changes to the SUP until after it is considered by the New Hanover County Planning Board on Jan. 5, 2017.

Kusek has said the SUP revisions are an important step in setting an agenda for job creation.

“We need to create an environment where there are more and better paying jobs,” she said.

However, environmental advocates this week indicated they were prepared to protest the proposed revisions to the permit policy, which places conditions on industrial development within the county. Mike Giles, North Carolina Coastal Federation coastal advocate, said proposed new changes to the SUP would move several industrial categories from “intensive use” to “general manufacturing,” allowing a more streamlined process for approval.

White said another county priority would be creating a new travel policy for members of the board, which would likely apply the same limits on county employees to board members.

In her first session, Kusek was selected to attend the National Carolina Association of County Commissioners in January in Raleigh for the 2017 Legislative Goals Conference, where she’ll represent the county’s agenda before other state legislators.

She said securing statewide funding for coastal storm damage reduction would be one of the top goals for the county, as well as expanding and preserving film grants for the state, which she said was needed to help the local film industry.

Kusek said for her part, she would pay for her own lodging during January’s meetings in Raleigh.

“We need a travel policy. It’s a big issue with a lot of voters who are upset that some board members are spending taxpayer dollars like they are their own,” Kusek said.

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