CoastLine: Wilmington Parks Bond & Brunswick County School Bond

Oct 14, 2016

On this edition of CoastLine, we’re taking the time to learn about two of the bonds that will appear on the November ballot.  One of those bonds would bring improvements and some facilities to the Brunswick County Schools System.  The other would develop and enhance parks and green space within the City of Wilmington. 

Segment 1

During the upcoming election, Brunswick County voters will be asked to vote on a $152 million school bond referendum. 

Guest:

  • Dr. Deanne Meadows is the Assistant Superintendent for Brunswick County Schools.   

Segment 2

The City of Wilmington is asking voters to approve a $30.6 million Parks bond which would help fund $38 million in parks improvements.

Guests:

  • Amy Beatty, Director of Community Service, City of Wilmington
  • Richard King, Deputy City Manager, City of Wilmington  

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Segment One

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: How much is the Brunswick County school system asking voters to approve in debt this November?

Deanne Meadows: The bond is actually $152 million, and it will cover all nineteen of our schools. Every school will receive some sort of funding out of that $152 million.

RLH: How does this translate into tax burden for each household in Brunswick County? What kind of additional burden does that become if voters approve this?

Deanne Meadows: Well, we had a bond in 1999, and there is some remaining debt on that bond. When you combine those two bonds, the tax impact on a $200,000 home will be approximately $80 a year, which is about $1.50 per week. We say it’s the same as a Sunday newspaper or a bottle of water. But that is the combination of both of those debts.

RLH: You said the last time Brunswick County asked voters to approve a bond for schools was in 1999. How much was that bond, and do we have any remaining debt leftover from that?

Deanne Meadows: Yes, that bond was approximately $82 million, and the debt left on it is about $30 million, but it will be paid off in 2020. Again, when we talk about the tax impact, it’s a combination of that remaining debt plus the $152 million that is on this new bond that we’re asking for.

RLH: And how much of a role does the state’s education lottery play in funding Brunswick County schools? How much does the state give also?

Deanne Meadows: On a yearly average, we receive about $900,00 from the lottery. We currently just added an addition at North Brunswick High School and an addition at Waccamaw School, and so the debt service on those two buildings is what that $900,000 is being used for. There really aren’t any excess lottery dollars to cover the projects that are in this bond proposal that is on the ballot on November 8th.

RLH: 1999 was seventeen years ago. Why so long in between bonds? What drove you to say, “This is the year that we need to ask voters to approve this.”?

Deanne Meadows: We work really hard to use taxpayer dollars in the best way possible. We have been able to do that over the course of time. And then the recession occurred in 2008. When that happened, obviously there were less dollars that came to the school system for facilities and for capital-type projects, which are what the items that fall into a bond are called. There have been facility needs that have not been able to be taken care of because there just wasn’t the funding there to be able to provide for that. So, there are mechanical issues. There are roofs. There are some safety concerns in terms of security plus overcrowding in certain areas of the district. All of those things have been impacted because of fewer dollars to spend on facility or capital projects. Technology is another thing. You have to continue to upgrade and update your technology resources. We are on a seven-year rotation right now. It really should be five years that we take a computer and we trade it out for an upgrade. If we don’t have a bond, we can’t continue to upgrade in a timely manner for technology, mechanical systems, any of those type of needs within the district. Our biggest concern is the overcrowding in the north area of the district, near Leland and the Town Creek area. We need some additional space to be able to deal with the overcrowding in that area.

RLH: How many new schools will this bond build?

Deanne Meadows: Town Creek Middle School would be a new school at the Town Creek part, where Town Creek Elementary School already exists. There would be additions to Lincoln and Town Creek Elementary School. There would also be additions at West Brunswick, but that’s really about removing modular units that need to be replaced. They are very old, and we need to have a regular brick-and-mortar building there instead of the modular units. There’s also the K-2 building at Waccamaw that currently needs to be replaced as well. So that would be in the bond. Our early college high school sits on the Brunswick Community College’s (BCC’s) campus, but it’s in one of the community college’s buildings, and the community college would like to expand some of their programs, so they have asked, for the last couple of years, for us to move and have our own facility on BCC’s campus, so we would like to be able to do that as part of the bond as well.

RLH: You talked about the impact of the 2008 recession. Can you explain why that recession translated into fewer dollars for Brunswick County Schools and what kind of cuts you had to make to the budget back then?

Deanne Meadows: Sure. The budget process in a school system, there are two separate budgets that you look at. One is current expense, and those dollars pay for salaries, instructional supplies, things that are yearly costs, utilities.

RLH: Operating expenses.

Deanne Meadows: Correct. And then there are capital projects, which are facilities. Things that are more long-term are paid for with those capital dollars. When the recession occurred, obviously we received fewer dollars from the state. There were cuts that had to be made either through operating expenses or in capital projects. We have the option to move some capital dollars to the operating costs. We did a little bit of that. We didn’t do a lot, but we did do some of that to move some of those dollars over so we wouldn’t lose teachers, we wouldn’t have classroom sizes that were really large, wouldn’t have instructional supplies for students. We wanted to maintain as much as possible in the classrooms. In order to do that though, there were some capital dollars that needed to be used in other ways, which then reduced what we had for capital projects. There were changes in the lottery process, so there were reductions in the dollars we received from the lottery. Across the board, everywhere in the nation, there were cuts to the dollars that went to education. We saw that and therefore we have some things that weren’t able to be replaced that needed to be replaced—for example, in our mechanical systems.

RLH: In your travels around the region, talking about this bond proposal, do you encounter people—and I’m thinking of retired people—who say to you, “I put my kids and my grandkids through school, and I really don’t want to see a tax hike right now in my retirement years. I feel like I’ve done my part, so leave me alone.”

Deanne Meadows: I have not heard that from retired people. I have heard people ask me the question, just like you are, about why a retired person would want to approve the bond if they have already contributed and their children or grandchildren have already gone through school or don’t live in Brunswick County. On our website, we have a video that we have been showing to most of the presentations that we’ve given to different organizations and community groups, and on that video, there’s a retired person, Arlene Holmes, who is one of our community members who moved to our area. She’s retired, and her grandchildren have already gone through [the school system], and she says it really well. If you want to hear her perspective, check out the video on our website. She speaks to that fact that we all have to help with the education of our children, and if we don’t contribute in some way while they’re being educated, we’ll unfortunately have to contribute in some other way, later on in life.

RLH: And what does that mean, “some other way”?

Deanne Meadows: Whether they’re in jail or they’re unable to provide for their families, or some other way that we will, through our tax dollars, have to provide for those who are not educated. She really articulates it very well. There is a responsibility for any of us as citizens of Brunswick County or the state or the nation to contribute to the education of children. I will say, back when we did our 1999 bond, the retired community supported our bond and they were the ones who really helped to make sure the bond was passed in 1999. Even though there might be a few retired people out there who say that, I really do believe that our retired community supports our schools. They volunteer in our schools. They’re part of the civic groups that are in our community. They want to help our children be well-educated.

RLH: Brunswick County is the second-fastest growing county in the state. Where are you seeing the increase in folks, and how is that impacting the schools? Which parts of the county?

Deanne Meadows: In the schools, our largest growth is in the Leland area, and I think, overall in the community, the Leland and Town Creek area is seeing a tremendous amount of growth. That’s why, within the bond, there are additions to some of the schools and a new school being built in that area. We have had research from a demographer who has provided us with projections for the next several years about what’s going to happen with the population, and we’ve used that information with information of our local leaders to help us to understand what’s happening in the district in terms of growth. We don’t have as much growth happening in the beach community, which is where South Brunswick High School, South Brunswick Middle, Southport, that area. There’s not as much happening there.  

RLH: That seems counterintuitive because isn’t it the beaches that draw people to Brunswick County largely?

Deanne Meadows: Probably more of that community is the retired community.

RLH: So they’re going, but they’re not growing the schools there.

Deanne Meadows: That’s right, and more of our families are buying and moving into the Leland area, workforce into that area. So, they have children, and that’s what increases the population within our schools, obviously.

RLH: So with additional facilities and larger facilities, you’re also going to have a need for more staff, more supplies. In other words, you’ll have an increase in operating expenses, those annual costs that the Brunswick County schools system has to find a way to pay every year.

Deanne Meadows: That’s correct.

RLH: How are you going to fund that budget increase?  

Deanne Meadows: Every year, our operating budget is reviewed, and we discuss it with our staff members. Then we have a discussion with our commissioners about our budget. We have a funding agreement with our county commissioners, and we have been fortunate to continue to have a funding agreement every year. The last two years, we had an agreement for the two years with a specific percentage that is given to us. We go back and negotiate with the commissioners, and they have been funding us at that level. We will do that as we open. If the bond works out on November 8 and we are working through this process, we won’t open all of those new facilities at one time. So as we open those facilities, in those annual discussions on the operating expenses, we will determine what we need to do to be able to fund that.

RLH: So what’s the time frame for all of this, then? If this is approved, how long would it take Brunswick County schools to spend that $152 million?

Deanne Meadows: Our estimation is somewhere between eight to ten years. It’s a three-phase process because we don’t have the staff, obviously, to build all of those buildings and to do all the renovations to all nineteen schools at one time, and there really aren’t the contractors and the work force within the community to be able to do that either. So we’ll do it in three phases. We’ll work through those projects, and as those projects or those schools are added, we would have discussions about our operating budget on an annual basis.

RLH: So is it likely then that this could come back to Brunswick County taxpayers as an increase with the bond debt and then also an increase from Brunswick County commissioners needing to raise additional money for more operating expenses in the school system?

Deanne Meadows: That has not been a part of any discussion that we’ve had. I can’t imagine that that would occur. We have been very fortunate in Brunswick County in that the amount of economic growth that’s happening, as you mentioned earlier, has helped us to be able to maintain that percentage agreement that we have with the commissioners. For the last two years, we have been able to get a little bit of an increase in our operating expenses. The school system is still funded at about the 2008 level, as to what we are currently to that level that we had back in 2008.

RLH: If voters approve this bond, how will they know that the $152 million will be used in the way we’re saying it’s going to be used right now? What kind of checks are in place for that?

Deanne Meadows: We have an obligation. We presented to the commissioners what was in the bond projects. The commissioners then approved or not, and they did approve for us to move forward to put it on the ballot. It being placed on the ballot is the agreement, that we’re saying, “These are the projects that will take place.” The only reason that projects would not take place is if there’s an added cost to a project. You know, we make an estimate on what we believe it’s going to cost to build a new middle school. If, three years down the road, it’s much more than that, then obviously we wouldn’t be able to get to all the projects that were originally in the plan. 

Segment Two

RLH: How much is the city of Wilmington asking voters to approve for parks and green space this November?

Amy Beatty: Well, we have quite a list of needs. There’s actually $61 million worth of projects that are in the city’s recommended construction fund. That’s not feasible for us to be able to do, so the mayor assigned a subcommittee of council members who had the difficult task of getting that number down to something they thought would be manageable and appropriate. That number is $38 million. So, $38 million worth of projects would be built. $30.4 million would be financed with the bond. $7.6 million would come from the city’s construction fund.

RLH: Richard King, how did that group of people arrive at the highest priority projects for this bond? What was the criteria for that?

Richard King: They looked across the city at all the needs that we have. We also go back to our citizen survey that we do every other year that talks about the types of projects that our citizens would like to see in Wilmington. They went through that criteria and went through the projects that Amy was talking about and came up with a list of projects down to that $38 million figure.

Amy Beatty: We also had the benefit of some very recent data from a recreation needs survey that we did in April, and citizens had the opportunity to tell us what types of parks and recreation facilities were important to them. There was an open survey where people could go to a website and answer those questions. There was also a statistically significant, random sample mail survey. Among the question on that survey was, “Would you support a parks bond?” 68% said they would probably or definitely vote for a parks bond.

Sarah (email): Will some bond money go toward completing the River to Sea Bikeway and making it safer?

Amy Beatty: The River to Sea Bikeway is one of the great projects that is— Planning of that is managed by the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Association. The 2014 transportation bond includes lots of bike and pedestrian projects. In addition to that, the city has been able to devote some funding for additional bike paths, and one of those is in the area of the River to Sea Bikeway. One of the most difficult stretches of that is in the Bradley Creek Area. We have a project to place a multi-use path on Hinton Drive and to make some bike lane and intersection improvements at Greenville and Wrightsville Avenue. That will tremendously help the River to Sea Bikeway. So that’s already underway in addition to the bike lanes that were painted on Wrightsville Avenue as part of the state’s widening project of that road.

RLH: So you talked about the survey and getting lots of input from stakeholders before you put this proposal together. What specific things did you hear from people? What did people seem to want the most?

Richard King: Again, we get input from citizens on everything we do, whether it’s a parks bond or transportation bond. We hear that all the time. I’m going to ask Amy to jump in there. Amy has been the workhorse for this project. She’s been out and about and done close to twenty presentations, so I’m going to ask her to address that.

Amy Beatty: I think the two projects that we hear the most feedback on and people express the greatest need for is the North Waterfront Park downtown. That’s 6.5 acres, right along the river in the vicinity of the PPD building. We had an extensive public input process on that, so that might be why we’re hearing so much about it, and I think that there’s a general consensus that there’s a need not only for more green space downtown, but for a performance area. So there’s that project and soccer fields. As a soccer mom, I can attest to that. We’ve got a supply and demand problem. We’ve got all sorts of kids playing soccer, lacrosse, and football, and there’s simply not enough space to provide for the various leagues. In addition to that, some of the projects that were completed with our 2006 parks bond—

RLH: And that was the last parks bond, right?

Amy Beatty: Yes, the last one was ten years ago. Projects like the Althea Gibson Tennis Complex have demonstrated that we are a destination for sports tourism. So, in addition to those soccer fields serving our local kids, we can bring more tournaments here. There’s bi-annual tournaments produced by the Hammerhead Youth Soccer Club—one in May and one in November—and they have to turn teams away who want to come here, so we’re losing economically on that front.

RLH: Do you have any idea what that potential economic impact would be? What we might be able to pick up with additional soccer facilities?

Amy Beatty: The Hammerhead Soccer Club does track what the economic impact is on those two tournaments. They could apply those numbers to additional teams and show what an impact would be. We also track that same economic impact using a formula from the Convention and Visitors Bureau for tennis and softball tournaments. Obviously road races are another big area where we’re a destination where people want to come and have those types of events here.

RLH: So do you have a number you could throw at us on that front? What we’re talking about in terms of potential economic impact if these facilities were there?

Amy Beatty: We’ve not performed a projection on that. There’s lots of variables that go in there. We anticipate these projects to be completed within seven years, but it’s hard to say at this point, before we have engineered the projects what’s going to happen first. We, as well as the public, want to see these projects completed as soon as the bond passes, but it’s important to remember there’s a lot of upfront work with engineering, design, and permitting that has to take place first.

Harper Peterson, former Mayor of Wilmington (email): How will citizens access the North Waterfront Park?

RLH: Is it a fair assessment to say this is the crown jewel of this bond proposal?

Amy Beatty: It was certainly a driver for the parks bond referendum to be placed on the ballot.

RLH: And it will take the lion’s share of the bond money? It’s the most expensive project of all the projects.

Amy Beatty: That’s correct.

RLH: Explain this North Waterfront Park for people who haven’t been following it and aren’t familiar with it. How will citizens access that park?  

Amy Beatty: Sure. The park is designed so that its use is maximized, and it’s a very vibrant park. That’s what’s going to make it a safe park and thus a successful park. We used the concept of outdoor rooms; I stole that terminology from a park in Washington, DC. [Outdoor rooms] basically means different-sized lawns segmented by paths or vegetation—so a very green, very lush setting, but it has a first-class performance area attached to it. We did not want to build a stage area or amphitheater and then throw in a park next to it as an afterthought. The park is the important thing, but we can build the stage to the technical standards such that we can attract A-list entertainment to our area. National entertainment companies have told us there’s a market for that here. But we want the park to be just as well used and activated on a Thursday afternoon as it is on a Saturday night. So with that concept of the outdoor rooms, you can have various activities taking place and complimenting one another.

RLH: What kinds of activities?

Amy Beatty: A mom with her kids in the playground. A downtown employee eating lunch. A yoga class. A bride getting her portrait made in the gardens. Perhaps a corporate event setting up that’s going to take place that evening.

As far as accessibility, we think with the park being so close to the MLK Parkway, transportation is going to be eased and also, one of our common objectives at the beginning of the park project was that it be accessible via car, bicycle, and public transit. We studied a lot of other successful urban parks, and the ones that we have seen all use the same concept: You want to maximize the development of the park and not use the park footprint for parking and instead utilize surrounding parking garages and on-street parking.

RLH: So what is the parking availability, and would you have events there that would attract five to six thousand attendees or so?

Amy Beatty: Ultimately, we can accommodate ten thousand, in terms of capacity. We wouldn’t do that until we had the surrounding infrastructure in place, such as additional parking garages. There is a road that is going to be built through the park. There will be on-street parking there. We’ve shown some success with the events that have already been held at the park that have had upwards of five thousand people there. The event utilizers have used shuttles to great success. The Ribfest took place recently there, and that event organizer said that the majority of those attendees actually used Uber to get there. So, with millennials relying less on cars and more on alternative modes of transportations, certainly parking is a very significant decision-maker for us, and we’re taking all of that into account.

RLH: So is it possible then that the city of Wilmington would end up building another parking deck down there to accommodate cars?

Amy Beatty: We actually recently completed a parking survey of downtown. Identified in that survey process is a public-private partnership. As the northern downtown continues to develop not only with this public park but also private development, the city would look to partner with those developers on shared parking structures.

RLH: You said the last parks bond was in 2006. That was ten years ago. Is there still debt that voters are paying off from that parks bond?

Richard King: When you look at debt with cities, I try to use an analogy that people can understand: It’s like buying your house, it’s kind of like a mortgage. You’re going to put a certain amount down, and then you’re going to finance that over a twenty-to-thirty-year period. That’s what we do with our debt service. We finance that over a twenty-to-thirty-year period. Our finance people are very good at keeping an eye on that, and when there’s opportunities to go refinance—just like you would do with a house—they would refinance those bonds to get a lower rate and save money on what we pay on those bonds.

RLH: And so what are City of Wilmington stakeholders paying right now in terms of debt service on those bonds?

Richard King: I’m not sure of the exact number, but we do a benchmark ourselves with other cities within the state that are of equal size as us, and we’re below the average, just below 50% of what other cities are doing as far as debt. To be able to do the things that Amy’s been talking about with the parks bond and the 2014 transportation bond— The only way to get those types of projects done is to have some type of bond where we finance those large projects over time, and it’s been very successful. As Amy said, in these surveys we’ve done, we’ve seen in the past years, people have been saying, “We want more parks. We want these additional transportation streets and bike and pedestrian projects.” To do that, we have to do those through some type of bond.

RLH: So then, how do you answer people who say, “I want the pay-as-you-go model, and I don’t want to go into debt for improvements like parks and green space. I want to be able to save money, pay for it as we go.”

Richard King: Again, we go back to trying to buy a house. You can’t save enough money over time to pay cash for a house, so you have to go through that mortgage process. We do the same thing. As Amy said, this parks bond and the 2014 transportation bond is broken down into a pay-go segment, and to get those projects done, that’s the model that we follow, and that every city in the state follows.

RLH: If voters pass this in November, what will it translate into for your average City of Wilmington resident?

Richard King: It’s 2.1 cents on the tax rate, which is about 40 dollars a year on a house valued at about $200,000.

RLH: There was a recent tax increase for city of Wilmington residents and also New Hanover County residents, is that correct?

Richard King: The last tax increase we had was with the 2014 transportation bond, which was voted on by the voters. I know the county had a tax increase last year. I don’t think we had one last year.

Amy Beatty: We did not.

Richard King: Yeah.

RLH: Okay, so this would bring to roughly $1.13 per $100 of assessed value, the tax burden on someone living within the City of Wilmington, if you combine the municipal tax burden and the county tax burden. Do you have any idea how that rate compares to other combined municipal-county tax burdens in other parts of the state?

Richard King: Again, we’re below that 50%, as I mentioned a few minutes ago when we compare ourselves to like cities. And that’s one of the key issues. You’ve got to compare yourself to other cities of like size instead of smaller municipalities.

RLH: How do citizens know that this bond money will go to what is on paper in the proposal? What kind of checks are in place? And wasn’t there a project from the 2006 bond that didn’t actually happen?

Amy Beatty: We tried to do this in a very open and transparent manner. When we asked the city council to consider placement of the parks bond referendum on the ballot, we provided the list of projects in a public meeting. When I’m out doing presentations, I run down the list of projects that will get done. The actual language on the ballot lists out the projects as well. So there’s lots of checks and balances there. I also think that we can look at the 2006 parks bond and our successful track record there. Probably the most popular project that got done with that bond was the Gary Shell Cross City Trail, among others. There was an auditorium seed money project. We were supposed to have multiple partners with that. That never came to fruition, so we moved that money to other parks.