August 18, 2022

A City’s Wrenching Budget Choices

It was an inopportune moment for the water pressure to plummet. But that is what happened when Engine 5’s motor, strained to the limit by 16 years and more than 100,000 miles of hard service, abruptly sputtered and died.

Only a month earlier, the fire chief, Buddy Martinette, had lobbied the City Council to replace the cantankerous engine at a session devoted to the latest of Wilmington’s six consecutive budget gaps.

“The mechanics really don’t think it will make it,” the chief warned at the time.

“You need another mechanic,” shot back Charlie Rivenbark, the Council’s foremost fiscal curmudgeon.

Mr. Rivenbark was not smiling, and once the scattered snickers quieted, none of his colleagues took issue. The fire truck fell off the table for the fifth year in a row.

Wilmington, N.C., is not Camden, N.J., which laid off half its police force this year. It is not Detroit, which is closing half of its public schools.

But like local governments across the country, the City of Wilmington has been demonstrably diminished by five years of unyielding economic despair. That a place like Wilmington, until recently a real estate boom town, would defer a purchase as essential as a fire truck for even one year, much less five, speaks to the withering toll.

In repeated visits over six months, Wilmington revealed itself to be typical of hundreds of American cities where the relentless drip-drip-drip of yearly contractions has gradually arrested civic momentum. As they wrangled over the 2012 budget, the city’s recession-weary mayor, Bill Saffo, and his fellow Council members faced a menu of increasingly distasteful options.

For Mr. Saffo, 50, a second-generation developer whose family had prospered with the area’s growth, the notion of presiding over a shrinking city was hard to stomach. Already a light sleeper, he was down to about four hours a night as a series of haunting tradeoffs — and a looming July 1 budget deadline — confronted him in the dark.

Padding around his house in a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt, while his wife, Renee, still slept, Mr. Saffo would flit from worry to worry. With the city facing a shortfall equal to 8 percent of its revenues, the mayor wondered whether this would be the year the Council had to close a fire station, and compromise emergency response times. Would the city have to withhold merit raises from employees for the third year in a row, and further demoralize valued workers? Could it keep the streets navigable by continuing to patch potholes rather than repaving?

“It gnaws on you day and night,” Mr. Saffo, a centrist Democrat, said. “Are the policy decisions we’re making helping rather than hurting? Are we doing everything we possibly can? You do stay up and think about this stuff.”

As a diversion, the mayor would surf North Carolina news sites in search of fiscal doom in other cities, “just to make sure I’m not the only one going through this.” But Wilmington always pulled him back.

He was running for re-election in November and he badly wanted to beef up the city’s police presence downtown, where a rowdy weekend bar scene had turned increasingly violent. But was it feasible to raise taxes to do so when voters had trended conservative (and angry) in local elections last year?

The mayor and the Council, who serve part-time, were still smarting from last year’s decision to raise property taxes to make debt payments on projects they had approved when coffers were flush. If a tax increase was out of the question, would they need to raid the city’s reserves? That, Mr. Saffo knew, could threaten Wilmington’s capacity to rebuild if a hurricane smacked the Carolina coast this summer.

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