Oak Island Town Council agreed Tuesday to make a number of capital purchases, including some earlier than department heads had recommended. Council also instructed staff to move ahead with a months-long process of establishing municipal service districts in anticipation of funding a major beach renourishment effort.
Council did not commit to a specific number of service districts or how much property owners would be charged, but Town Manager David Kelly said Oak Island would need the equivalent of a two-cent tax increase to pay off anticipated engineering and geotechnical services, expected to be made final this May.
Each penny raises about $247,000; the current tax rate is 31-cents per $100 taxable value. Council’s current policy is to dedicate two cents strictly to beach and shoreline protection.
Members agreed they needed to devise a financing plan, noting that estimates for long-term sand placement are $30-million to $40-million. The discussion came during council’s annual retreat, moderated in part by Chris May, director of the Cape Fear Council of Governments.
Council member Sheila Bell said she strongly favored using municipal service districts over assessments, because the taxes imposed by the districts are deductible.
Council member Jeff Winecoff agreed and added that service districts could be removed once projects were finished, whereas future councils might be reluctant to lower the tax rate back to pre-project levels.
Finance director David Hatten said that, after collecting money from the districts, the town had to sign contracts for the work within a year or return the money. Bell said the districts could be established with a tax rate of zero until Council decides on a final plan.
Council member Loman Scott, reviewing early financial statements, noted that at the end of fiscal 2020-2021, the town would be relieved of about $3.4-million in annual principal and interest payments on three building projects. He suggested the town might leverage those funds to lessen the burden on property owners in the municipal service districts.
In general, council agreed that beach projects and stormwater would be the most critical issues this year. Council also wants to make a firm decision on paid parking, see the pier complex up and running and get a better handle on road rights of way.
Kelly said he did not expect to request an increase in utility rates, although there could be changes to the development fees, in line with a recent study capping water and sewer charges for future development at $6,000 per house. Kelly said the town would pass along an increase of 49-cents per pickup on recycling fees.
Kelly said the conversion to remote-read water meters was nearly complete and that the budget included funds to finish installing air conditioners and other equipment at the sewer vacuum stations.
He said he wanted input from council on what to do with the old white storage building at Bill Smith Park and was investigating whether Council meetings could be broadcast live on the Internet.
Council, staff, May and Police Chief Speedy Ingram discussed the problems of recruiting and retaining officers. May suggested offering at the least the average starting salary of area departments. He said the town might also target mid-career officers, paying them more but making them more likely to stay in a small town.
Ingram said he’d like a more diverse command structure, so officers could work toward being corporals and sergeants, for example.
Fire Chief Chris Anselmo said adding an extra part-time responder to Station 2 had improved the department’s response time by about a minute or slightly more. The change was made for the temporary closure of the G.V. Barbee Sr. Bridge, but Anselmo said he’d like to add one firefighter to each shift permanently, even after the bridge reopens. This will put three at Station 1 (Middleton Avenue), two at Station 2 (Yaupon) and two at Station 3 (South Harbour). Call volumes have risen by about 100 a year since 2015 and were 1,556 in calendar 2018, he reported.
At the meeting, council also:
n Performed an exercise to discuss the desired qualities of the mayor, members of council and town manager.
n Agreed to use capital reserve funds to lease new police cars and buy new ATVs for the department.
n Discussed holding a symposium to help residents understand what happens during a hurricane and why there are curfews and bridge closures. Oak Island’s longer-term problem is the lack of a safe emergency operations center off the island. Officials had assumed they could use Fire Station 3 at South Harbour or the station at St. James, but both were plagued by flooding in Hurricane Florence. The town is also looking into buying electronic road signs, which cost about $18,000 each.