Last Thursday, May 19th, City Council held its first reading on sending a 0.5% tax increase to the ballot. As I have written before, I believe that this increase is necessary to ensure that vital services in the city continue and are improved. I will try not to belabor this point, but instead want to focus on the tactics taken by certain council members during last weeks meeting.
The lone no vote on the first reading was Lonnie Stuckert. This vote came as somewhat of a surprise to me, as well as to some other observers, but was not altogether shocking. Mr. Stuckert has spoken against tax increases since his campaign, as did his father (who he replaced as 2nd Ward representative). Unfortunately, Mr. Stuckert has failed to provide any concrete plans for cuts. He has said multiple times that there are alternatives, but has yet to present them. This is what is most frustrating to me. When somebody makes the decision to run for council, they must be prepared to present solutions to problems, and not just be a naysayer. For Mr. Stuckert to come to the last meeting unprepared for the criticisms that he has fairly received about his lack of plans is not acceptable. This conversation has been ongoing since the first council meeting of the year, and there was a special council meeting the previous week. I hope that he does present some of his ideas soon, because I believe that it is important for council to continue to discuss fiscal responsibility and the future of the city. Until then, Mr. Stuckert cannot lead members of the community to believe that this problem can be fixed without a revenue increase and not be willing to lead that charge with concrete ideas. It is too late in the process for nebulous proposals.
Councilwoman Randi Milburn has also been on the fence about putting a tax increase on the ballot, but she did end up voting yes on the first reading. My hope is the Mrs. Milburn will work with the other members of the finance committee to work on a long-term plan that focuses on responsible spending for the city. It is easy to talk about budgeting responsibility, but as a member of finance committee, she can be an integral part in leading that charge. As to a bully campaign, however, it is important to separate presenting facts and bullying voters. It is necessary to let voters know what will be cut if the tax increase does not pass, even if that does include police. There needs to be a campaign about the reality of the dire situation we are in. However, I believe this can be done tactfully and in a non-threatening way.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out for second and third reading. I hope that the council members who have been skeptical will either present alternatives or throw their support behind the plan. The tax increase can succeed at the ballot behind the full support of council, and with plans to control spending in the future. Mrs. Milburn and Mr. Stuckert are right in that we must be prudent. However, the reality is clear-the City of Wilmington is in financial trouble due to a wide variety of factors, and the cuts that would have to be made to get to even in the budget would be extremely painful to those working for the city and for residents of the city. Fiscal responsibility and tax increases are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be. Everyone’s voices should be heard as council moves forward, and it is vital for citizens to know that the tax increase is needed and that the money coming in will be spent in a manner that is responsible and desirable for members of the community.