“One guy said, ‘You probably don’t give a crap what my opinion is…,’” Commissioner Skip Watkins said over the phone, as he quoted a recent voicemail from a constituent.
The constituent called in regards to changing the public comment period for the recent budget cuts reflected in New Hanover County’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2017-18.
“Close to the end, he used a derogatory term, and I’m thinking, You didn’t want to accomplish anything; you just wanted to blow off steam. . . . But most people have been very cordial and have gotten responses [from me].”
When NHC’s 2017-18 budget proposal was presented at the County Commissioners meeting on May 1, county manager Chris Coudriet reviewed how all funds, totaling $367.2 million (1.7 percent increase from 2016-17 revised budget), could be spent.
As of May 10 changes introduced to the board would include $135,000 cuts to 10 agencies, including Wilmington’s Residential Adolescent Achievement Place (WRAAP), which stands to lose $10,000, and $40,000 from Wilmington Downtown Inc. (All changes can be found at www.nhcgov.com/administration/budget.) While the cuts are concerning for the agencies and citizens who support them, another issue looms over this year’s process and board: A public notice was posted on NHC’s website on May 16 stating the June 2017 meeting schedule for the Board of Commissioners had been changed, as requested on May 15 by a commissioner for personal circumstances. They canceled the regularly scheduled board meeting for Monday, June 5, at 4 p.m. which was reserved to include a public hearing of the recommended budget comment period. Now, everything will be held on Monday, June 19, at 4 p.m., in the Assembly Room of the New Hanover County Courthouse: the budget meeting and the public comment section, immediately followed by a vote to adopt.
Rob Zapple said he first learned about the change of plans the day it happened. “I was surprised,” he told encore. “The problem of compressing everything into one day on June 19 is the public hearing follows immediately and then the vote. So, any additional written material will be impossible to be read or absorbed prior to taking the actual vote.”
Like many citizens, Zapple is concerned with cuts to nonprofit programs, such as $5,000 to Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry (WARM), and the impact those cuts will have on their ability to serve the community. “I don’t believe they’ve had a fair chance,” he continued. “I want to hear and have the time to absorb the information.”
According to chairman Woody White, the change will not affect public input. He’s been answering calls since announcing the change of date last week.
“It does not deprive at all any citizen of seeing what the proposed budget is today, participating, commenting as they frequently do, and as they’re doing as we speak,” White said at the May 15 meeting. White added the board could delay June 19’s vote to a special meeting upon receiving any new information provided by public comments via email, phone calls or public hearing on June 19.
According to the county manager’s chief communications officer, Ruth Smith, while there has not been a time in recent years when the county budget was voted on during the same meeting as the public hearing, the board regularly votes on planning items, budget amendments and economic development items on the same day as public hearings. “Procedurally, following a public hearing on the budget, the board can choose to approve, amend or postpone the vote on the budget to a later date,” she added, “so long as the budget is adopted by July 1.”
Nevertheless, some citizens are left as frustrated as Zapple. They want more time between a hearing and final vote. Some believe the move is less coincidental in nature because of the unpopular cuts added to the budget.
Tiffany Salter is a social worker who works with vulnerable youth in the community. She’s tuned into local nonprofits and their critical resources. Salter is one of more than 100 locals who have signed a petition to reinstate the June 5 meeting, or at least reschedule it before June 19. Outside of cuts to programs she supports, Salter believes the change undermines a critical step in the process.
“I would rather there be more time between the public hearing and the vote, in order to allow an actual conversation and processing of the information and opinions heard during the public meeting,” she explained. “If [NHC County Commissioners] want their constituents to feel heard then they will hold the hearing earlier to allow appropriate feedback.”
While the June 5 meeting could have been rescheduled for June 12, Commissioner White told encore he went with Coudriet’s recommendation to condense the two meetings for efficiency. Three of the four remaining commissioners agreed.
“It was settled,” White said. “There’s nothing secret here, there’s nothing partisan. . . . I think this is much ado about nothing—and it’s, frankly, disappointing some issue is being created over a scheduling conflict.”
As for the proposed cuts, White said some line items have doubled in the last three years and are being brought back to historical levels of funding. The Good Shepherd Center’s $11,000 reduction, for example, would return to FY16 funding level. White said these monies also would help reach $265,000 to expand LINC, Inc.’s jail diversion program.
“These cuts represent half of that money,” he explained. “Everybody gets upset when they get their budgets cut, and I get that, but we try to do the best we can with finite resources.”
With one of the most open and transparent budgeting processes at any government level, White believes the public had and still has adequate time and resources to participate in its ongoing conversations. He said the two issues of scheduling and budget cuts are in no way related.
“There’s no erosion or truncating of any rights the public has in this process,” he continued. “It’s going to be the same process, just on a different day. . . . If a group of people or a person convinces a majority of the board to make a change here or there—which sometimes happens in public hearings—that can be done.”
While Commissioner Zapple thinks the odds of changing hearts and minds of commissioners on voting day are slim, he agreed all County Commissioners want to hear from constituents during this comment period.
Commissioner Watkins said he’s been spending a great deal of time fielding calls, emails and meetings related to budget inquiries—and is seriously reconsidering a couple of cut budgetary items. Yet, Watkins is not concerned with the schedule change and doesn’t believe the public podium is necessarily where changes are made but rather from more one-on-one engagement.
“I understand some people may be concerned they’re not going to have their voice[s heard],” he said. “I hope every citizen feels free to communicate with us and I do respond . . . I want to answer their specific budget questions because every citizen deserves to have their own questions answered.”
Readers may review the proposed budget at www.nhcgov.com/administration/budget and email comments to all commissioners all at once by going to www.commissioners.nhcgov.com/us/staff and clicking the appropriate link.
Emails and phone numbers for each NHC County Commissioner are as follows:
Jonathan Barfield, Jr.
County Budget Meeting/
Board meeting and public comment section, followed by the vote
June 19, 4 p.m.
Assembly Room, NHC Courthouse
316 Princess St.
UPDATE SINCE PRESS: Commissioner Rob Zapple has scheduled a community meeting on June 5 for citizens to discuss the NHC budget. The meeting will be held June 5, 5:30 p.m., at New Hanover County Courthouse. Folks should note: This not an official Board of Commissioners meeting or official public hearing on the NHC budget. Learn more at the Facebook event page.