New Hanover County voters will decide in November whether to approve a $160 million school bond.
If it passes, the bond will pay for security cameras in all the schools, construction of one new elementary school, the complete replacement of two elementary schools, and badly-needed renovations across the system.
WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn spoke recently with one vocal opponent of the bond: New Hanover County Commission Chair Woody White.
WW: My view is we have to say “no” to this bond.
RLH: How would you fund these needs? You said yourself we do have safety issues, we have some real infrastructure issues with schools, we have capacity issues. What’s the answer from a funding standpoint?
WW: Well, the worrisome thing is you pose that question to the school officials or to other commissioners and there’s no answer. There’s no Plan B. All our eggs are in the basket of the bond. And that demonstrates for you the real lack, in my view, of our community in strategically planning for what we know is going to be growth. We see these population trajectories. And we’ve done nothing but resort to a bond every 7 or 8 years. That’s not good enough.
RLH: Do you think that we should use some of the county’s reserve fund to pay for these improvements and construction needs for schools?
WW: That is something that I’ve stressed that we look at. We live in a hurricane community here and so we need to be very frugal and careful about spending savings. I’m not suggesting we just go out there and blow all of our savings.
We’re always going to have some debt as county government. It’s just the way government works. However this year alone, Rachel, we’re spending over $52 million in cash for debt service… Think about if we didn’t have to send $52 million to the bank every year. It costs about $18 million or so to build a school. We could build a school – we could build three schools for that. We have to back up, wait for some of this debt to fall off our books until we go back to the debt market, and meanwhile, be innovative in how we fund the needs we know that are there.
RLH: What are some of those possible innovations?
WW: For tax valuation, we’re going to see growth, and we have to look at increasing our capital funds that we’ve done. And we have worked with the school system to pick off the number one priority on their list which is a school in the northern part of the county. Let’s pay cash for it. Let’s budget it over three or four years and get it off the books. And we’ve committed to doing that. And that’s why you’ve seen them purchase the land and approve the design and engineering fees – to go ahead and start without regards to whether or not the bond passes.
RLH: You’re talking about a pay-as-you-go model.
WW: That’s where we want to be. The statistic that’s most troubling to me is our debt. It has grown almost ten times in twenty years. Now our population has not doubled – has not grown more than 100%. But our debt has grown almost ten times.
RLH: Right, but people would still say, wouldn’t they, that we’ve been fiscally conservative as a county. We have a AAA bond rating. We’ve got this very large reserve. The Local Government Commission requires – what 8% -- and we’re at almost triple that…
WW: We are at 21.5%. We are very financially conservative and safe and if these bonds pass, we’re not going bankrupt. We’re not like Detroit. We’re fine. The sky’s not falling. But it is going to result in a tax increase to property owners.
RLH: What are other funding options?
WW: Our sales tax, Rachel, we have a high percentage of payors of our sales tax that don’t even live here. Why don’t we offload more of our infrastructure needs and our needs onto folks who are traveling here and staying here for a short period of time? That’s what we see in Salt Lake, that’s what we see in Orlando… we have a lot of that type of opportunity and so we just need to simply spread out the tax burden more fairly than simply putting it on our property tax owners.
RLH: Woody White, thanks so much for joining us today.
WW: Rachel, thanks so much for having me.