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OCEAN ISLE BEACH—On Thursday, Dec. 13, mayors and other elected officials from throughout Brunswick County participated in a mayors’ meeting in Ocean Isle Beach commissioners’ chambers. The topic was getting to know Brunswick County’s newly elected commissioners—Pat Sykes and Frank Williams.
“The agenda is simple,” said Bob Morrow, mayor of St. James. “We have invited the newly elected commissioners to hear their views and get to know them a little better.”
Sykes and Williams were asked to tell the group a little about themselves and why they ran for commissioner.
“I am to the point and to the meat. The main thing is doing what is right for the county,” Sykes said.
She listed her major concerns as parks and recreation, fire departments and personnel issues such as the wellness program and an old personnel policy that needs to be updated.
She said the county overspends on parks and recreation and that commissioners “need to look at our needs and not our wants.”
Sykes briefly said fire departments need to be looked at and was later questioned extensively about her thoughts.
“I think it is important to have a dialogue between us and you guys,” Williams said as he introduced himself.
His three biggest issues include making the county business-friendly; transportation between Brunswick and New Hanover County; and making sure Brunswick County has a voice in regional issues.
“Brunswick County is an economic powerhouse in the making,” he said.
The mayors then asked the commissioners questions.
“Fire departments—what are your thoughts?” Harry Simmons, Caswell Beach mayor, asked Sykes.
“I think we are overspending, and fire fees need to be stabilized,” Sykes said. “I’m thinking of a fire tax to replace fire fees based on property value. With a fire fee we’re under the law of the legislature, but when it’s a fire tax it’s under the county.”
Sykes explained she wanted to ensure things are done fairly, with a goal of keeping insurance costs down.
“I think it could be organized to benefit everybody,” she said. Sykes mentioned that a Beacon reporter was at the meeting and said she didn’t want to discuss the matter further without having time to do research.
Several mayors agreed it was an emotional matter.
“Going back to the fire department issue, we are going to treat it like everything else the county looks into and be transparent,” Williams said.
“I got a lot of complaints about the fire fees,” Sykes added. “It’s one of the areas people wanted me to look at.”
Simmons questioned Sykes on the fairness of charging a tax based on property value.
“The fire fee rationale is based on square footage because of the challenge of putting out a fire in a larger area. Why should value be a part of that? It is the same amount of challenge to put a fire out on a house on Bald Head Island as it is for a house of the same size in Ash,” Simmons questioned.
“I am just saying it is an area that needs to be looked at to see about improvements,” Sykes said.
Dean Walters, mayor pro-tem of Ocean Isle Beach, asked Sykes about Ocean Isle Beach Park.
“The taxpayers gave the county that land in good faith, but it (the park) hasn’t been done to the master plan,” he said.
“We should go in phases as to what the needs are. We can’t go above our capital improvements or we have to go up on taxes,” Sykes said. “If we do all of these capital improvement projects on parks, we have to go up on taxes.”
“Being a person who has to get permits and has to be there hours at a time, there has to be a faster process. I do ask you to look at it,” Walters said.
“It needs to be clear, consistent and predictable,” Williams replied. “The taxpayers are our customers but more so they are our stockholders.”
Williams said he would look into the possibility of forming a committee to streamline the permitting process and to find ways to become more business friendly.
“I think there are areas of the UDO that really need to be changed to be more friendly. Each business is different,” Sykes added.
Mayor Alan Holden discussed issues he and other elected officials face in Holden Beach. The island falls under the town’s rules, and the town is permitted to landscape while the area along the causeway is the county’s.
“I am jealous of areas that can beautify their entranceway. The city limits start at the middle of the waterway. Holden Beach probably has the ugliest entranceway to a town,” Holden said. “The town has to accept what you see as you enter Holden Beach. It’s embarrassing to the property owners and elected officials.
“That is just me venting and acknowledging my jealousy. If they are complying with the county then there is nothing we can do.”
The mayors agreed they would like to ensure open communication between municipalities and commissioners. It was agreed that when the municipalities and commissioners present a united front in Washington, it has a profound impact.
“We need to get back to the needs, the basics, until the economy picks up and keep taxes low,” Sykes said. “We can’t do but what we can do with tax money. It takes three votes to get anything done; you have to remember that. All the things we are looking at and reviewing might not happen.”
Rachel Johnson is a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or rjohnson@brunswickbeacon