By Chris Coudriet, County Manager
As it always seems to do, time has flown by, bringing us to another holiday season. It feels like mere weeks ago we were welcoming 2023 with hope for what was to come. As the calendar winds down, it provides an opportunity to look back on the achievements and milestones of an extremely busy year for New Hanover County.
While there is certainly much to celebrate, it’s important to take a moment and reflect on those we lost in our county family, including Commissioner Deb Hays. She was a special woman who prided herself on serving our community with fervor and compassion. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know her and work with her. Her spirit will be remembered in our organization for a very long time.
One item that Commissioner Hays was certainly passionate about was the proposal to bring a purpose-built, customer-focused Cape Fear Museum and Public Library to downtown Wilmington. After years of hard work and focus, that plan is becoming a reality.
The funding structure for Project Grace was approved by the Local Government Commission in October and crews are working right now to prepare the block for construction of this cultural hub. While we won’t get the final result until late 2025, it’s certainly exciting to see the progress thus far and we look forward to watching this facility take shape over the next two years. I’m thankful for the dedication of our staff and the vision of our Commissioners to see this endeavor through.
While one major project is getting started, another is finally open for business. We officially cut the ribbon and welcomed the public to the new Government Center facility. The streamlined customer service counter makes the experience of doing business with the county simple and accessible.
Working to provide resources to the community continued to be at the heart of what we do as an organization. This year, our Commissioners approved approximately $3 million in funding as part of the 2023 Workforce Housing Services Program, which will serve 274 households in our community. This is the second installment of a five-year commitment by the Commissioners to invest no less than $15 million into workforce housing.
Commissioners also continued to prioritize addressing mental health and substance use disorder in the community, allocating $6.8 million in spending this current fiscal year from the national Opioid Settlement Funds and the county’s Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Fund. This money will go to increase capacity and enhance or expand needed services in these areas.
Additionally, our Social Services team leads the charge on Medicaid expansion by coordinating outreach events throughout the community to help residents apply for benefits. The kickoff for this, which started in December, will help many in our community get connected with the health care resources they need.
We added an international travel clinic at Health and Human Services. We also made paper containers recyclable and opened a new customer convenience center at the landfill.
Our Commissioners’ focus on advocacy for our residents was easy to see, as they fully supported efforts to hold Chemours accountable for GenX water contamination, worked with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to create opportunities for access to clean drinking water for residents currently using wells, and worked with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to help residents understand the well testing resources that are available.
Commissioners established the New Hanover County Hispanic-Latino Commission to create deeper connections in the community and ensure understanding and inclusivity. We partnered with community groups to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Wilmington Coup d'état, celebrated diversity and the ongoing work in our county with the third annual Equity Awards, and helped the Williston High classes of 1969 and 1970 get the commencement ceremony they were denied so many years ago as part of desegregation.
On top of all that, Commissioners adopted a new five-year strategic plan that will guide decision-making moving forward. They approved a balanced budget with a total spending plan of $588 million, which also included a half-cent tax cut.
As an organization, New Hanover County was honored with 11 National Association of Counties Achievement Awards in 2023, marking the third consecutive year we’ve received 10 or more of these awards. We were also commended by the Government Finance Officers Association for outstanding financial record keeping and the Public Gardens Association for sustainability. And we maintained our Triple-A bond rating from the country’s two largest credit agencies for 10 straight years.
I could keep going, believe me. There’s no shortage of highlights to share. In just 12 months, your county government worked hard and accomplished much, creating change that is impactful today and will make a difference in the years to come.
I’m certainly grateful to everyone on our team who made all of this possible. And, most importantly, I’m excited about the opportunities that await us in 2024.