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Residents to rally before meeting

BY Gareth McGrath
by Gareth McGrath on 5/1/01.

Fed up with having to pay more tax because of annexation and what they claim to be questionable county expenses, dozens of New Hanover County residents plan to picket before Monday's County Commissioners meeting.

The group will then present its complaints to the commissioners during the meeting, said Esther Potter, one of the leaders of the nameless grassroots movement.

Ms. Potter, caught Monday taking a break from making protest signs, said she 's simply had enough.

"I just woke up one morning and said, 'I am fed up and I want to be heard,' " she said.

First, the property taxes on her $ 150,000 house in Eastwood Village more than doubled to more than $ 1,800 when she was annexed by Wilmington last year.

Then, she heard that the County Commissioners expect to raise the property tax rate again this year, on top of a 4.5-cent increase last year, and it was just too much.

The county's property tax rate is 61 cents per $ 100 of assessed property value. A penny on the property tax rate generates about $ 1.6 million.

"If it went for education, we wouldn't be complaining," Ms. Potter said. "But the money isn't going in the right direction."

County officials have said rising expenses, a softening economy and mandated spending for services such as Medicaid are creating a funding hole for the 2001-02 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Several proposed budgets the County Commissioners are considering include a minimal tax increase dedicated to managing the growing school construction debt. But the options, which don't come close to addressing other school needs, also include raiding the county's saving account and massive spending cuts to county departments and outside agencies - steps the County Commissioners appear loathe to approve.

Ms. Potter said if that's what it takes to bring the budget under control and avoid another tax increase, then that's what the County Commissioners have to do.

Her suggestions include selling Airlie Gardens and junking the $ 50 million jail project.

Ms. Potter also said she would like to see the county and city governments consolidate, something the County Commissioners vocally support.

Joyce Fernando, head of the Cape Fear Chapter of Citizens for a Sound
Economy, a conservative political group, said she supports the upcoming protest.

"I feel that the county needs to do what happens in a household or business - when you have a shortfall you need to cut spending," she said.

While she dislikes taxes as much as everyone else, Commissioner Nancy Pritchett said the county is stuck between a rock and a hard place with next year's budget.

She said not addressing the county's funding woes this year could lead to an even bigger budget headache down the road.

"There are no easy or painless answers," Ms. Pritchett said.

Gareth McGrath: 343-2384