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Local Government Roundup - June 21, 2024

New Bern

The New Bern Board of Aldermen approved its budget at its June 11 meeting in a close 3-2 vote. The contention was over a tax increase. Originally, the proposed budget asked for a three-cent increase, but it was later reduced to just one cent in budget workshops. Councilmember Robert Brinson and Mayor Jeffrey Odham were the two who voted against, citing opposition to any tax increase.

"I oppose tax increases, period. With the continued rise in inflation, adding an additional burden on our citizens is unnecessary,” Odham wrote to the New Bern Sun Journal.

Councilmembers Rick Prill and Hazel B. Royal were not present for the vote.

Other aspects of the budget include a 2% cost of living adjustment for city employees, a 5% hike in electric rates, and increases in fees for recreation programs. City Manager Foster Hughes wrote in the budget summary that the overall revenue increases are intended to cover higher costs for insurance premiums, materials and supplies, salaries, and debt payments. Read more about the electric rate increases in this Sun Journal article.

In New Bern, the city will sign agreements with two railroad companies to install a stormwater pipe across the tracks near East Rose Street. New Bern agreed to pay $200 to Norfolk Southern for its portion of the lease, and nearly half a million dollars to the North Carolina Railroad Company, a company that's owned by the state.

Greenville

The Greenville City Council approved next year's budget at its June 13 meeting, which includes a 10-cent tax cut on property value and a lengthy discussion on further cuts that were not approved. The new tax valuation per $100 of value is 39.54 cents, which is 9.41 cents lower than the current rate. At the meeting, Councilmember Les Robinson requested to cut two positions from the city's budget — a sustainability manager and a community engagement coordinator — to further reduce taxes by 18 cents. Robinson's request was not seconded, and the council passed the new budget 5-1, with Robinson as the lone dissenter.

Other highlights from the budget include an additional $100,000 for sidewalk expansion, $125,000 for parks and rec, and expanded hours for the transit system. A 4% pay increase for city employees was also approved in the budget, alongside a $700,000 pay adjustment for public safety to improve salaries and help with recruitment.

They heard several updates to arts and economic development projects at its June 10 workshop meeting. The city has leaned into public art as an economic engine for the city, as evidenced through its Emerald City Loop vision and "placemaking" initiatives. Holly Garriott, executive director of the Pitts County Arts Council, cited a study on the local impact of various projects in her presentation to the council. Conducted by Americans for the Arts and Arts & Economic Prosperity, the study found more than $5.2 million spent by attendees at Pitt County Arts events.

Lastly, the council heard updates on a major overhaul of its ordinances by drafting a new unified development ordinance that will modernize the city's code regarding zoning, lighting, subdivisions, and development review procedures. The project is still in its early stages, having mostly focused on public engagement and input. The next step is an open house in August.

Kinston

In Kinston, the city accepted $3 million from the state Emergency Management Disaster Relief and Mitigation fund to increase the water-holding capacity of Adkin Branch from storms. The total cost of the project is expected to exceed $16 million.

Just this week, the city approved its budget. The headline items include a 12% increase in garbage fees and a 2% raise for city employees. Mayor Don Hardy told WNCT "The landfill went up so we had to go up as well." Another item included specially designated funds to address homelessness. That program is called Block at Home and is available for people living in

Lenoir, Duplin, Edgecombe, Greene, Wilson, and Wayne counties.

Lastly, the city council sits in opposition to the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners and NCDOT over a proposed plan to remove some stoplights from downtown. In question are three back-to-back traffic lights along Queen Street at the intersections of Caswell, North, and Gordon Streets, each of which would have stop signs for the side roads. In May, the Lenoir County Commissioners expressed its approval. Still, earlier this month the Kinston City Council unanimously rejected the plan. The decision, however, of whether to move forward remains with NCDOT.

Jacksonville

A new affordable housing complex opened in Jacksonville last and began welcoming tenants. Built by Eastpoint Homes, the Crestfield Apartments comes from a mixture of funding sources, including $4.3 million from NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency through their Affordable Housing Development Fund, $1.7 million from the NC Housing Finance Agency, and a $1.8 million loan. An American Communities Survey found Onslow County needs 2,000 new homes, and the new complex adds 700 to the supply. In previous council meetings, the City has sought to grow housing by partnering with state agencies, like the NCHFA.

As an update from previous roundups, the city and county arrested 17 people as part of its law enforcement effort to regulate tobacco and vape shops. Dubbed "Operation Vapor Trail," the mission was to crack down on the sale of illegal items sold at shops, like THC products above the 0.3 legal limit. The seizure of more than 3,000 pounds of THC products calls into question whether the THC/CBD market is regulated effectively and how they even make their way to store shelves.

“Many of these products come from China, with little or no regulation about what they contain,” Sheriff Thomas told the Jacksonville Daily News. “Most of these items are packaged in packaging that’s appealing to children, many of which have trademark violations with them, and they are directed directly at children to get them to use them.”

Craven County

The Board of Commissioners heard opposition to a James City gun range that's underway. Bill Streblow voiced concerns over noise levels and safety.

"They’re going to be shooting across my driveway, or at my driveway, where I drive in and out all day and commercial vehicles come in and out,” Streblow said.

Meanwhile, the gun range owner is holding steady. John Bennett, who also owns JB Armament, says he's following local, state, and federal rules and that the gun range is there to "help the community," according to the Sun Journal.

Craven County Schools held a public information session on June 13 to discuss the merger of Havelock and Tucker Creek Middle Schools. The county has been looking to move out of Havelock Middle for years, saying the 70-year-old building doesn't meet its needs anymore. Now, with plans to add 20 new classrooms and $15 million from NCDPI, Tucker Creek is expected to add about 450 students. The transition is expected to take two years.

Carteret County

Commissioner Chris Chadwick has been charged with setting the 550-acre forest fire that erupted last weekend near Atlantic. According to WITN, the NC Forest Service charged Chadwick Sunday, the cause of which was a debris burn. In response, Chadwick told the Carteret County News-Times that he had obtained a burning permit and was burning brush. He said the fire had been out for weeks. Chadwick added that he and others had repeatedly checked the site to ensure it had gone out but suddenly started back up while he was away.

Onslow County

The Onslow County Board of Commissioners approved its FY 2024-25 budget this week. Interestingly the budget is one of the few in the area to not include tax increases and is also one that offers one of the highest raises to county employees. Most approved budgets contain some form of salary increase to account for inflation and the rising cost of living, but unlike other governments, Onslow County ties it's increases to the Consumer Price Index. Therefore, county employees will receive a 3.7% increase, a whole point-and-a-half ahead of both New Bern and Kinston city governments, but below Greenville's 4%.

The budget also significantly increases funding to public safety and education. Nearly $5 million more will go toward public safety this next year. Sheriff Chris Thomas said that money will go toward to hiring four new officers. Meanwhile, an additional $4 million has been allocated toward education. The board says it was able to pay for these large expenditures because its revenue, too, has grown. Total revenues this year grew to the tune of $20 million.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.