Carteret County and its 11 municipalities are facing a tsunami of growth resulting from increased interest in the quality of life afforded by our coastal geography and the impending construction of a U.S. Interstate Highway (I-42) terminating here. If the county and municipal leaders are not careful and thoughtful, this growth will result in regional disputes that will only exacerbate current problems and make their solutions costly.
Manifestations of this growth are seen with numerous rezoning requests countywide as competition between commercial and residential interests collide. Added to these requests are infrastructure concerns such as water and sewer services and storm water management. This has become an acute problem for Bogue Banks towns and a chronic problem for the mainland towns where most of the commercial and industrial development is happening.
Carteret County commissioners are now planning for the coming fiscal year budget. Among the considerations is a continuing request from two mainland towns- Cedar Point and Newport- asking that sales tax revenues, returned to the county by the state, be allocated based on a per capita formula. Currently sales tax revenues are distributed using a formula based on ad valorem taxes which benefit the four beach towns of Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Indian Beach, Emerald Isle and Beaufort. Based on 2019-20 revenues Morehead City benefits slightly more using the ad valorem formula.
Newport town officials are leading this effort due to the growing stress that the town is experiencing as the county’s population expands. As the largest town in geography and second largest in population, the town comes in sixth place in sales tax receipts among the county’s 11 municipalities.
Newport is not the only town that is beginning to feel the impacts of growth but it will experience the greatest stress since that will be where I-42 terminates and merges with the existing Highway 70 corridor coming into Morehead City.
But there is more to the town’s concern about highway development. As noted, it is the largest town geographically and as a result has the largest area for residential expansion, an issue that the county, particularly the beach towns need to consider.
Former Town Manager Chris Turner, promoting the change in distribution formula last year, noted that Newport is the county’s primary residential community able to provide workforce housing which he argued is a critical need for the county.
“We have reached a ‘must act threshold,’ ” Mr. Turner noted in a March 2020 e-mail to the News-Times. When we ask the question, ‘why are we unable to attract and sustain a workforce of adequate capacity to service our businesses?’ the critical factor in that answer points to inadequate sales tax distribution across our three largest municipalities, who carry the lion’s share of our existing in-county workforce.”
Mr. Turner’s concerns were accurate a year ago and even more so now as the county’s economy continues to grow despite the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no question that current sales tax distribution formula does not take into consideration the difficulties that Newport and the other mainland towns are experiencing.
On the ‘flip side’ of this issue is the fact that the tourist-centric towns on Bogue Banks and Beaufort are dealing with immediate demands to support the county’s largest industry- tourism. These demands also require financing for services and for infrastructure to sustain the tourism economy which is supported by the current distribution process using the ad valorem formula.
Newport, and the other mainland towns, are rightfully concerned that there is no financial consideration of their current and future value. And that value, particularly providing the land areas for residential growth which will, in-turn, support the workforce to fill the jobs both in manufacturing and service industries is equally important and warrants support.
The dispute over sales tax distribution which is creating a growing divide among regions of the county, pitting town against town, does little to solve the problems caused by the changes that are coming fast, and like a tsunami, cannot be stopped.
There are limited financial resources but there is unlimited imagination and opportunity if the municipalities, with the county commissioners’ support, are willing to consider different ways to fund the services that are needed.