5 other agents assigned to the city center, the MSD committee “disappointed”, two of whom are financed by its tax revenue
WILMINGTON — More law enforcement is being added to downtown streets and some people in the Municipal Service District aren’t happy with how it’s funded.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, councilors voted unanimously to add more police presence to a 70-block area of downtown due to growth and increased traffic from downtown bars, brasseries and restaurants. He also accepted $40,000 from New Hanover County ABC Council to purchase e-bikes for officers to ride through areas, such as the Riverwalk, currently inaccessible by car.
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It will take $693,625 to add five officers charged with cracking down on liquor violations under the state’s liquor enforcement guidelines.
Wilmington Police Chief Donnie Williams has called for the salaries of new officers to be funded in the city’s 2023 budget. City staff determined that three, in addition to all equipment needs — such as five vehicles for $230,000 — would be counted against its general fund for $276,234.
The other two officer salaries, totaling $184,000, would be covered by the Municipal Service District’s fiscal year 2023 budget of $781,306.
“One of the fundamental responsibilities of any municipality is the protection of citizens, which is why we all pay property taxes,” former MSD committee chairman Clark Hipp told the Port City Daily. “That’s exactly what municipal taxes should pay. It doesn’t seem fair to me that a particular area should be taxed extra to pay for basic services provided to the municipality.
Created in December 2016, the MSD is made up of residents and traders from the area from the Cape Fear River at 5th Avenue and Nun Street to the Isabel Holmes Bridge. They pay more taxes to cover additional services, such as downtown beautification and marketing, trash removal, hospitality assistance, and improved economic development.
In fiscal year 2023, MSD ratepayers will pay 6.47 cents per $100 of valuation, up from 5.47 cents in 2022. This is the first increase since MSD’s inception, put in place to cover police salaries.
City manager Tony Caudle addressed the MSD advisory committee about the staff budget recommendation in April. Hipp said the committee unanimously decided that his income should not be used for police patrols and passed on as much to the city.
Some committee members were confused as to whether MSD funds could even be used to pay for a municipal post, as had never been done in the past.
Before Hipp’s term on the board expired on July 1, he said he called several other MSDs in the state, including Winston-Salem, and confirmed that no service agents were paying from his budget.
The city council ultimately makes the final decision.
“The board respects this advisory committee and has agreed to what you’ve asked for in the past, but, yes,” Caudle told the committee, “they are pretty much self-reliant in terms of their decision-making.”
MSD is overseen by Wilmington Downtown Inc. – which has been without an executive director since May, when Holly Childs suddenly quit. The district’s efforts are funded by the city budget, as well as taxes on properties within its boundaries.
When MSD formed, a steering committee to assess its needs was made up of downtown representatives, including Justin Smith, owner of Husk, YoSake, and Anne Bonny’s Bar and Grill.
Smith ceased to serve on the committee before it was officially established in 2017. “To my knowledge, this type of expense [for municipal positions] was never part of what MSD was supposed to stand for,” he said.
Smith noted that while he knew there was an MSD tax increase this year, he was unaware of its reasoning until this week. As a downtown business owner for 25 years who frequently speaks with others in the area, he said he knows he’s not the only one left in the dark.
“It looks like something was done under the guise of something and prepared in a back room,” Smith said.
Front Street Brewery owner Tom Harris, who helped WDI develop the MSD launch proposal, said there has been an increase in properties since the district began. Resorts like River Place, Flats on Front, Pier 3 and Sawmill Point have all opened in recent years, bringing an additional 1,000 units for rent.
Since the city receives more property taxes, Harris said it should also cover basic services, including law enforcement.
The city is expected to collect $70 million in property taxes in 2022. In 2017, when the MSD steering committee began, the city collected $66 million in property taxes, according to previous PCD reports.
“Having the city take money from MSD to pay two police officers is not in line with what the companies were promised when they agreed to support MSD,” Harris said.
Caudle told the committee there were tax and fee increases across the board for fiscal year 2023 and explained that “it’s a tough budget” all around.
He also reminded the committee that MSD was created for two reasons: safety and cleanliness. Caudle said city staff believe the additional officers are in line with MSD’s mission.
“I recognize that it may not be pleasant or preferable to recommend that two WPD officers be funded from this source of income, but I think it is the fairest way,” he said. he said in April.
The city confirmed to the committee that it would review its budget each year to determine if the money could instead be taken from the general fund. The MSD tax rate will be reassessed for the 2024 financial year.
Of WPD’s roughly 130 officers, about 13 are already delegated to the downtown task force, which is 10% of the force for less than 1% of the city’s incorporated area and less than 4% of its base. tax, explained Caudle.
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office also has five officers in the downtown task force. Along with the other five from WPD, that will bring the total to 23 on patrol downtown.
Both Williams and Caudle confirmed that the needs of agents arise from the “explosive” growth of the city center. However, “the existing staff is overstretched”. In April, Williams said he had 30 vacancies in the police force, which amounted to “50 bodies” including those on family leave or active military service.
WPD Captain Kelly Sipes told the council on Tuesday that the department had an interlocal agreement with New Hanover County’s ABC council since 2014. When the pandemic hit and nightlife came to a standstill, that contract was expired.
“Generally, only ABC staff are authorized to enforce ABC laws, such as an establishment serving an underage customer,” city spokesman Dylan Lee said. “This agreement will allow five existing WPD agents to have that authority and be able to assist ABC agents.”
Williams also confirmed in April that WPD was not responsible for patrolling concerts, as Live Nation was responsible for hiring off-duty agents.
Hipp, along with other committee members, favored funding off-duty officers for downtown events through MSD funds, as it would align with its mission.
“There was a way to fix it,” he said. “No staff or board came to the committee and engaged with us. It was simply presented as follows: “We need additional security and believe that MSD voters should pay for it”.
Smith said as a business owner, he hoped the increased police presence was more for crowd control and underage drinking than a targeted effort at business owners.
Council member Clifford Barnett told Tuesday’s council meeting that he had also received letters from business owners saying they were unaware of the need for an increased presence of officers and raised a similar concern about more police establishments “targeting” downtown establishments.
Captain Sipes said that was not the case and that WPD “never had this allegation” before.
“I welcome any further enforcement; I will look to their expertise on what they feel is needed,” Smith said. “However, it can fuel a negative narrative about downtown and what downtown is.”
He said he wanted more talks to take place between those immediately affected.
The current MSD committee – made up of 14 people to represent the region – remains unhappy with the outcome.
“No one contacted us to involve us in a decision,” Hipp said. “We recommended no action and they ignored our recommendation.”
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