Funding the 421 Corridor Improvements: An Interview with NHC Commissioner Woody White

Apr 28, 2015

The price tag to extend water and sewer service along the 421 Corridor is twelve million dollars. WHQR’s Isabelle Shepherd spoke with New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White about ways the county might offset the costs of the project.

Isabelle Shepherd: At the meeting between the city and county, you suggested selling county property to help offset the costs of infrastructure development along the 421 Corridor. What county property did you have in mind? And has that idea caught hold with the rest of the Board of Commissioners?

Woody White: Well, I suggested that as one alternative to look at. Do we have surplus property? I think there’s general agreement that we do. Could we put some of that property back in the private sector and use those funds to generate cash to pay for some of our capital needs? And so, I didn’t list any specific parcels, but more of an emphasis on looking at other alternatives of funding other than simply issuing debt. I understand debt is always part of local government. It’s going to be. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the debt we have existing right now hovers right at 20% of our gross budget. That is not a number that we should be proud of, and it’s a number that we should try to do something about over time. Another alternative is to look at our savings account. Right now, our savings account is at approximately 23% of our overall budget. The state only requires us to keep 8%. Bond rating agencies prefer us to have something in the 14% to 18% to 20% range. How much money could that give us if it’s something we wanted to commit on a capital expense item? But those are the types of innovative questions that we need to ask instead of always resorting to the debt market.

IS: Mayor Saffo suggested voluntary annexation of county property to the city along the 421 Corridor. What do you think of that option, and do you foresee it being likely?

WW: You know, that’s up to the city. I think that’s a very positive comment that he made as it relates to us continuing to work as partners to find a way to do this together. For the most part, it’s a burden that ought to fall on the county, but particularly in the southern part of the 421 Corridor—where the Isabel Holmes Bridge is, if you will, just to visualize it—it does make sense and it is in keeping with the long-term goals of the city of Wilmington, as it relates to them entering into the Utility Authority six years ago, to look at some of those spots and potentially voluntarily annex if the property owners want. We know that it’s going to increase property values. It’s probably something a lot of those property owners want, to give them more options of what they can do with their land. I commend Mayor Saffo and the City Council for considering that. It’s a great option that we need to consider and work towards together.

IS: So, Mayor Saffo also suggested private investment, similar to Duke Energy running water to the contaminated Flemington sites. What do you make of that? Is it likely? Would we partner with Duke, or what other businesses might invest in infrastructure developments along the 421 Corridor?

WW: Well, there’s a lot of business interest up there. Coke Industries owns a huge part of that corridor. They’re trying to sell it, for example. Other options are not only businesses, but I know Raleigh looks at how to redistribute its economic development dollars and whether or not to do it consistent with how they’ve done it in the past or adopt a new model. And as far as we’re concerned, in this region, that’s one of the biggest accelerators that we know, that would help our industrial corridor, is water and sewer. And so, is there a way to convince Raleigh of that need?  

IS: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Woody. I really appreciate it.

WW: Okay, Isabelle. Have a good day.