County budget retreat yields few outlined priorities

by Kelly Corbett
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The expectations by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners for what outcomes would be produced during the daylong strategy and budget work session were unclear Friday, Feb. 8, resulting in few outlined priorities and goals for the upcoming budget process.

At the end of the meeting, however, chairman Woody White said the discussion provided a lot of “positive momentum” for the budgeting process going forward.

The work session, held on Friday, Feb. 8, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the New Hanover County Executive Development Center, began with presentations by county staff on the nearly $278 million current fiscal year (2012-13) budget.

“I want to know what the static number is,” White said. “And if you want to call that zero-base budget, which everyone runs from, fine.”

White said he wants to have some comfort in the total number, knowing it is exactly what the county needs, adding they need to go through a more thoughtful process than just saying they want a budget that does not raise taxes.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said they are in better shape now than they have been in the past and with reevaluations he said he thinks values will go up because they will find that numerous additions have been made to properties.

“I think long term we will probably pick up a lot, and we will probably offset some numbers,” Barfield said.

County manager Chris Coudriet said he has been challenging when meeting with department heads, many of whom were present for the second half of the retreat, to go over department requests and possible cuts.

“Organizationally we are aligned with you,” Coudriet said to the board. “... Let us figure out how best to do it with the constraints that you set.”

The county hired David Eisenlohr, president and managing partner of The Azimuth Group, Inc. of Dallas, Texas, to facilitate the discussion for an AGI professional fee of $7,500 plus out-of-pocket expenses, including travel, report production and delivery charges.

Listed budget challenges include school security, potential school bond issuance, shore stabilization and beach renourishment.

While working together as a new board of commissioners on the budget, the county is also sending a letter per request of the board to Wilmington City Manager Sterling Cheatham regarding having a public conversation about priorities.

White said citizens should see the two entities in a formal setting to discern where they find a consensus.

One concrete priority White said he would like to look more into is the 72.3 percent of mandatory service with discretionary funding to see what changes can be made during the budgeting process. The board has complete discretion of only 7.3 percent of non-mandated programs, including the Cape Fear Museum, the Senior Resource Center, the library and parks and gardens.

Strategy and policy manager Beth Schrader tied the results of the citizen survey, conducted in November and December 2012, back to the county’s strategic plan. In the survey, citizens ranked a strong economy, a planned environment, a safe and secure community and preparing all students for success as priorities. Wrightsville Beach residents made up 2.6 percent, or 15 survey respondents. But 54.2 percent of Wilmington residents responded to the survey and 38.7 percent of people in unincorporated/none of the listed areas. The other areas were Carolina and Kure beaches. 

Of the 3,600 surveys delivered to county citizens, 567 respondents, equal to about 16 percent, returned the surveys. Coudriet stressed that the survey, conducted by Insight Research, Inc. of Greensboro, N.C., at a cost of about $14,800, is statistically valid.

The open-ended question about what residents would like to see done to improve the county invoked a variety of responses, including better communication between county and city officials, better roads, more bike lanes, lower taxes, lower water and sewer costs and traffic control.


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