County government budget meeting revisited

At the March 20, 2015 budget meeting of the New Hanover County, North Carolina board of commissioners a Wilmington StarNews reporter missed the most important part of this public event—the negative impact on taxpaying citizens. Her report about the process and staff involvement was interesting, but superficial. On the other hand, Miriah Hamrick with the Wrightsville Beach Lumina News dared go into the burrow of the predatory beast.

Ms. Hamrick reports that “senior county management and department heads” attended to establish strategies and priorities for the 2015-16 fiscal year. I’ve suggested previously that the county staff have a controlling interest in and are primary drivers of county government and its spending priorities—our elected officials, who we mistakenly assume represent we the people, for the most part rubber stamp what best serves the bureaucrats and other interest groups.

To support that allegation Hamrick noted that last spring County Manager, Chris Coudriet, “warned of the upcoming need to raise the property tax.” Notice that he didn’t warn the commissioners to reduce increases in spending. His “position” for wanting to increase taxes, after “crunching numbers” was servicing mounting debt.

True. Some county voters approved bond debt of $18 million for parks and recreation in 2006; $164 million for Cape Fear Community College in 2008 and another $160 million for public schools in 2014. These voters didn’t care about massive debt they put on all of us when they were offered no-immediate-pain ways to have their pleasures at others’ expense. But, as they say, chickens come home to roost.

Future “obligations” are foisted on us by a small number of voters; usually less than 20 percent of those eligible show up in local elections hereabouts. More important, as I recall, prior to these “approvals,” county officials joined the small, but clamoring, interest groups to promote these debts; prominent among them was current chairman of the county commissioners, Jonathan Barfield (and StarNews editors).

The responsible thing for our elected representatives to do before the votes was, at least, warn the public of the large debts and increased taxes they faced, but they were very much complicit in these scams. Now we have expensive limited-use parks scattered around the county; a lavish community college arts and theater building downtown for the local “first-nighters”; and soon to come government school facilities and bureaucratic perks that will have little to do with improving children’s knowledge.

Only one voice on the Board was heard to question the rampant irresponsibility. Commissioner Woody White spoke up.

As Ms. Hamrick described, Mr. White pointed out the inordinate amount of county spending over the last twenty years: population has increased about 50 percent while the debt assumed rose 700 percent—few people benefit at the expense of many.

White suggested that the commissioners focus on “essential services within the county’s means without incurring additional debt.” Every dollar they spend is removed from the people in the county and reduces jobs, wages and economic development—ironically, the very highest priority chosen by the commissioners, he noted.1

Commissioner Rob Zapple said county finances was going to be a defining issue in the next couple months, but he said “there’s not a magic bullet.” Mr. Zapple mentioned that debt incurred was voters’ “desires.” It seems to me that if debt for parks and buildings is the people’s budget priority the commissioners should eliminate other lower priority spending on their list. The New Hanover County commissioners wouldn’t need a “magic bullet” if they aimed properly at the right target. Aim and squeeze the trigger on common sense.

One way they could hit the mark is to send the county manager and his department heads back to their offices with clear instructions to cut the county budget equal to the amount of debt service, and report back with re-crunched numbers at the May 4 meeting.

1 From personal correspondence, Mr. White was troubled by “overwhelming hyperbole from many of the participants, about what county government can do to ‘create jobs’ or ‘affect childhood obesity,’ etc, etc.” The longer the four-hour meeting dragged on, he said, “the further from our core mission we were.”

White was “equally disappointed in the lack of meaningful discussion about what our ‘real priorities’ ought to be. It seems that the current leadership of our board simply wants to discuss more ways to spend money that we do not have.

Wait until our budget comes out in a few weeks; I predict it will have a MINIMUM of a 3 cent tax raise—which will divert nearly 9 million dollars from our local economy.  I believe there are alternatives to raising taxes, but it is unlikely that the leadership will entertain much discussion other than rubber stamping the proposed increase. We will see.”


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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