By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
NEW HANOVER - New Hanover County Commission Chairman Ted Davis presented the State of the County address to the Board and area leaders on Monday February 6.
Davis has served as County Commissioner since 1996, and is presently in the last year of his 4th 4-year term.
Davis spoke about many topics during the address to local area leaders, county staff and the public.
He began by talking about the announcement two weeks ago that County Manager Bruce Shell is retiring June 30.
Davis said, "I have worked with Bruce as both Finance Director and County Manager. He has earned my respect and my admiration. I want to personally thank him for his 25 years of selfless and exemplary service to the citizens of New Hanover County."
Davis said even in challenging financial times in the last few years, "we have made significant progress" and remains strong because of their attention to the bottom line. He said one of his top priorities was to ensure county government is "a good and faithful steward of your resources - fiscal, economic and environmental."
He explained, "As our vision statement partly says, New Hanover County is committed to "building a sustainable future for generations to come."
He said, "First of all, our triple-A credit rating remains intact. Few other counties in North Carolina can say that. A triple-A credit rating reflects the strength and diversity in our tax base; it represents strong leadership and management, and it means the county can borrow money for important capital projects at the lowest possible interest rate. Our fund balance has grown, meaning our ability to continue weathering this economic storm is strong. The fund balance that is available has grown from 18.3 percent to 20.5 percent, which means that your county government has about $52 million in its savings account."
Davis spoke of the recent countywide tax revaluation of all personal and commercial properties. He explained, "In order to insure the same amount of ad valorem tax revenue for the 2012-2013 fiscal year that we have in the present fiscal year, the Commissioners will need to consider establishing a tax rate that will be revenue neutral. I have asked the County Manager to prepare a two year budget plan that begins with a revenue neutral budget in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which will include the selling of Cape Fear Community College Bonds, and no additional increase above that revenue neutral tax rate for either the 2012-2013 or the 2013-2014 fiscal years."
Davis pointed to signs the local economy is improving.
He said room occupancy taxes - collected from hotels and motels - are a good measure of "out-of- town visitors, business activity, and retail sales growth. I am happy to report that in the past two years, those revenues have increased by 10 percent."
He said, "Building permits and inspections through January indicate that more than $225 million in total construction value has been added to our community, which is a 5 percent increase over last year at the same time. The majority of this growth is fueled by the private sector making new investments in our community. To date, construction work across New Hanover County by individuals and businesses had increased by more than $94 million. Housing starts are an important measure of growth. There have been 48 percent more new housing starts this year as compared to last year, as well as a tripling of multi-family apartment buildings over the same time period."
He pointed to a 16 percent increase in sales tax revenues as a positive sign of an improving local economy.
On education, Davis pointed to students scoring higher on SAT scores and a reduced dropout rate. He said, "When many districts continue to face alarming dropout rates, the overall graduation rate rose three points from nearly 71 percent to almost 74% in New Hanover County. Both African-American and Hispanic students showed between a six and 12-point increase in their rate of graduation."
Davis said funding schools continues to be a top priority and, "As a result of the Commissioners recognizing that our children are our future and our most important asset, the Board has committed 37.5% of the county's budget to primary and secondary education. It is the desire of this Board that when our children graduate from either high school or college, they will have the opportunity to have a career opportunity here at home and be productive members of our community."
He said, "Cape Fear Community College is the 5th largest community college in North Carolina, has more than 60 job training programs in a wide range of occupations, and will serve thousands of area residents this year. To help fund the Community College, the Commissioners have budgeted $6.2 million for operation and $10.4 million for capital needs. The new Union Station building under construction on Red Cross Street will provide 250-thousand square feet of classroom space when it opens a year from now. The Community College is also working on plans for a new Humanities and Fine Arts facility, as well as an Advanced and Emerging Technologies Center."
Davis said while the national unemployment rate is showing signs of improvement, unfortunately, the number of people out of work is still too high.
He said, "We look forward to seeing the creation of more jobs. For example, as many as 500 jobs could be created this year with just one $80 million dollar investment from Marvel Comics and its decision to film Iron Man 3 locally. And this is only a part of a larger resurgence of film and television work, that the Wilmington Film Commission estimates will result in more than $200 million in related activity locally. This is a clean industry; a creative industry; a multi-generation industry."
Speaking of economic development, Davis said, "Our financial assistance has landed high paying jobs for Corning, General Electric, Verizon and other fine employers. This board will continue its focus to create job opportunities in this community and region."
He said, "This fiscal year, New Hanover County also increased its funding for Wilmington Downtown Inc. and has established performance-based reporting measures. Last year, Wilmington Downtown Inc. recruited 8 new downtown businesses and brought 159 new downtown jobs. And with an 86% occupancy rate, Wilmington Downtown Inc. is well on its way to surpassing those figures."
Davis said efforts by the police and sheriff's department to step up law enforcement presence downtown in the evening hours helps promote a safe environment which draws more people to downtown.
Davis said, "The County continues to support the good work of Wilmington Industrial Development and its effort to expand existing industry locally and attract new industry and jobs to our region."
Davis explained the county, "Has been working with leaders in our beach communities to ensure future beach renourishment projects should the federal and state governments fail to provide the necessary funding. We now have a sustainable approach to make sure our room occupancy tax will be able to fund those beach projects in the absence of federal or state funding that will draw visitors to our community well into the future. Through our collective community efforts, New Hanover County and its room occupancy tax is now authorized to assist with the funding of beach nourishment projects as needed through legislation known as Contributed Funds Authority. Contributed Funds Authority will allow local funding to supplement federal funding of the projects at Wrightsville Beach and Kure Beach. Efforts are ongoing to re-authorize the Carolina Beach project and a contingency plan is now in place to obtain the permits and authorizations necessary to continue beach protection on Carolina Beach."
He explained the county, "Is also working to ensure that the Carolina Beach Inlet remains open to recreational and fishing boats. The Commissioners requested Governor Perdue to utilize contingency dredging funds to keep the inlet open to avoid economic and environmental impacts to Carolina Beach and Masonboro Island, as well as tourism and recreation within New Hanover County. The funding was approved and efforts with State agencies to develop a long term solution to the dredging of shallow draft inlets in North Carolina are underway. Just last week, the County learned that a memorandum of agreement between the state and the US Army Corps of Engineers is in place that will allow this work to get started."
Davis said, "In the past year, New Hanover County contributed $300,000 to help fund the regional SABLE helicopter program. We improved our 911 call center to include law enforcement dispatching for our university campus. And we have also worked with ABC officials, the city of Wilmington and our Sheriff to provide funding for additional law enforcement for downtown security."
He said, "Not only has New Hanover County worked to decrease crime, but we are also helping rehabilitate those who have found themselves in the endless cycle of drug abuse."
He explained, "This past year, New Hanover County agreed to take over what was the state's responsibility to fund the drug treatment court program where previously addicted citizens become tax payers, instead of tax users. Drug Treatment Court is here to enhance and monitor drug treatment services to chemically dependent adult offenders, while holding those offenders accountable. It costs $80/day in the county jail but only $12/day for Drug Treatment Court. Eleven participants have successfully completed and graduated from the program in the last year. And just a few weeks ago, the Commissioners agreed to apply for a state grant to continue funding the DWI Court, which helps individuals who are repeat offenders."
Davis said the county developed its first strategic plan in nearly two decades last year. Commissioners adopted the Strategic Plan identifying the following five priorities:
• Superior Public Health, Safety and Education
• Intelligent Growth and Economic Development
• Strong Financial Performance
• Productive Strategic Partnerships
• Effective County Management
Davis said, "New Hanover County has been a leader in developing new technology.
We were the first television market in the country to go all-digital. And now, we are the first county in the nation to use TV White Space. This new technology will allow us to provide Internet access in our parks and gardens, will help traffic controllers see the hot spots of traffic congestion, and help protect our citizens and businesses by linking that technology with patrol cars to let officers monitor, in real time, the dangerous situations they can face."
Davis explained, "We are constantly looking for innovative ways to provide services in a more cost effective manner. Our Property Management department teamed up with Progress Energy on 12 lighting upgrade projects, saving the county on annual electricity costs. Through these programs, New Hanover County has received more than $35,000 in rebates from Progress Energy."
Davis spoke of automation improvements in the Register of Deeds office and conducting a series of town hall meetings last year to communicate with the public.
He said the Citizens' Academy is improving communication with, and the education of, those who live in New Hanover County.
Davis said, "The County is working with the Wilmington International Airport Authority and the State Ports Authority to reactivate the Foreign Trade Zone at the state port and expand its footprint and benefits to the airport. This is important because a Foreign Trade Zone is an area near a port of entry where duties and taxes are payable only when moved from the zone for use by businesses. Therefore, this Foreign Trade Zone will help increase our global competitiveness."
Davis said, "Last year, the Commissioners and county staff issued a call for qualifications to possibly renovate and operate on a long term basis the county's sustainable energy facility, commonly known as the trash incinerator. Two industry leaders emerged from the review and were invited to respond. Formal proposals are expected in March. The Board intends to choose one of the two companies and proceed with a future plan for our solid waste before the end of this fiscal year."
He said, "In closing, please allow me to remind you that the Board's vision is to maintain a vibrant and prosperous community that will build a sustainable future for generations to come."
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