WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — We’ve heard the State of the Union, the State of the State and the State of the City. Now it’s time for an update on New Hanover County.
In tonight’s State of the County address, New Hanover County Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield talked about where we’ve been and where we are headed as a community.
Just like many other counties in North Carolina, New Hanover is still struggling to stay afloat because of a tight budget.
There was no denying the times are going to get tougher and the decisions will be harder for Barfield. New Hanover County, along with 99 other counties in the state, will absorb a nearly $3 billion dollar budget deficit from the state.
County leaders say they refuse to let the state keep pushing their problems to the county level. Barfield made a promise to county residents and vowed not raise property taxes Monday night.
From schools to the Department of Social Services to a new ABC Board, Barfield has a long list of objectives to change or fix in his first year as commission chair.
County Manager Bruce Shell said this year has been the toughest by far budgetwise. He said a lot of what the new budget year depends on comes from the state’s economic status.
“Counties exist at the blessing of the state, as do cities,” Shell said. “We are here to serve and do mostly state type of functions, so if the state needs help, then as a child of the state, that’s where local governments have to come in, and unfortunately our burden often falls in the property tax rate or cutting expenditures.”
The county’s Department of Social Services was hit the hardest after it cut 16 positions while facing an increasing workload.
“We’re serving more people with more caseworkers, but we did not add one single job,” said Barfield.
When it comes to jobs Barfield wants more of them. Residents agree, but don’t want them with companies like the proposed Titan Cement Plant.
“I think there’s many other ways,” said Kayne Darrell, who came out Monday night to express her thoughts about Titan. “I just read in the paper today that Home Depot is hiring 100 new employees and they’re not doing any damage to the environment.”
Commissioners say the final decision to bring Titan to our area lies in the hands of the state. The state also has the final say in our county’s budget. About 80% of the county’s budget is mandated by the state. Barfield says the county cannot allow the state to fix it’s budget problems by burdening the 100 counties that make up North Carolina. If they do our county’s schools, mental health departments, social services and jails could all take a hit.
“We found the local government tightens it belt, but in New Hanover County the budget is not broken,” said Barfield.
Residents stayed after the address to voice their opinions at the county commissioner meeting. Some say they’d like to see more cuts in the county’s spending, but in 2009 the county spent $217 million dollars from the general fund. In 2010, it spent $168 million dollars. The commission cut nearly $50 million dollars in their spending and it’s a trend commissioners hope to continue in the new year.
“I think we need to do a better job of planning instead of going by the seat of our pants,” said Darrell.
Barfield emphasized the county has made big strides by voting to increase the sales tax in 2010. It’s been the leading contributor to meeting the needs and wants of the community. Barfield said the vote has helped New Hanover County become a “more resilient community” because it saved many departments that help keep the county special and unique and it kept open “one of the most important museums operated by a local government anywhere in North Carolina.”