January 11, 2011

Talking trash on Ocracoke is akin to ‘wading into quicksand’


When you start talking about trash on Ocracoke Island, “you’re wading into quicksand,” noted one island business person.

But that subject will come up again in several months when the Hyde County Board of Commissioners determine whether to retain the current fee-based plan, which is up for renewal in October.

And while the saga of trash disposal on Ocracoke is quiet for the moment, some feelings on the island remain hurt following the sudden demise in June of the year-old Pay-As-You-Throw program (PAYT), which charged according to the trash one generated.

Trash disposal on Ocracoke has been tumultuous for the last few years as the community wrestled with how to deal with it.

“We’ve gone full circle and a half on this,” noted Commissioner Darlene Styron of Ocracoke, adding that with any system there are some people who will be unhappy. “I really don’t know what the answer is.”

Because of the political nature of the trash situation, several large and small business-owners and residents interviewed did not want to talk on the record.

Those who are for PAYT say the current system is unfair to people on low and fixed incomes, and that rental houses should be charged the small-business rate.

Currently, Hyde County residents and businesses pay a flat, monthly fee that was approved in June after a hue-and-cry about the PAYT plan, which was begun in 2009.

According to a notice on the county website, www.hydecountync.gov, the fees are:

Ocracoke large business: $100 per month
Ocracoke small business: $50 per month
Ocracoke residential: $35 per month
Ocracoke dumpster fee: $140 per tip
Mainland small business: $40
Mainland residential: $25
Fees to dump construction and demolition (C & D) debris are eliminated

According the commissioners’ meeting minutes posted online, large businesses include restaurants with seating capacities of 55 or more, campgrounds that have 25 hook-ups, motels and hotels that have 10 or more rooms, and any large grocery/convenience store. 
Interim County Manager David M. Smitherman said nine businesses on Ocracoke fall into the “large” category.  

Those businesses are: Jimmy’s Seafood Buffet, Ocracoke Coffee Co., The Boyette House, The Anchorage Inn, The Pony Island Inn, Blackbeard’s Lodge, Howard’s Pub, Creekside Café and the Ocracoke Variety Store.

Fees are higher for Ocracoke residents than on the mainland because Ocracoke trash gets picked up twice a week while the mainland gets picked up once a week.

Styron, who replaced Gene Ballance on the county commission in May, noted that she had asked Utilities Director Clint Berry why there was a difference in what islanders pay vs. mainlanders, and he told her that even with a twice-per-week pick-up on Ocracoke, the cost of that pick-up on both sides was about the same. Styron in June voted against the fee schedule.

With the fee-based system, some residents feel they are subsidizing businesses and rental properties.

Yet, those same businesses and rental properties are drawing tourists to the island, and those revenues benefit the entire island and probably outweigh whatever break they may be getting in the way of trash fees, notes Donna Drilling, a realtor with Ocracoke Island Realty.

She understands the theory of PAYT, but believes it doesn’t work for the island.

“Because we’re so reliant on tourists, it’s just not practical for Ocracoke,” she said. “I was not for PAYT because I look at the big picture. To try to figure out what everyone uses is difficult.”

The PAYT plan was in place for about a year--from 2009 to June of 2010--but it took a community committee several years of research and a previous attempt at PAYT before it was implemented.

Some on the island say the PAYT was doomed from the start, noting that it was instituted at the height of the tourist season, without any community education and little management by the county. Moreover, one business person said the county didn’t use the plan the committee had recommended.

Former county commissioner Gene Ballance, who resigned in May and who was part of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee that proposed the PAYT, noted that he voted against the fee-based system.

“Certain people are benefiting from the flat rate system,” he said. “They yelled the loudest and the commissioners listened. They wanted to keep Ocracoke quiet.”

Ballance said the PAYT was going well until some people complained about others not playing by the rules in various ways.

Trying to get rental property tenants -- let alone permanent residents--to adhere to the PAYT system proved difficult.

Drilling noted that abuses with the PAYT were occurring where people would dump their trash in others’ cans in the dead of night, and she had noticed mattresses dumped alongside the road.

The complaints could have been addressed managerially, Ballance said.

“We tried (PAYT) two times,” he said. “It will be difficult to get them to do it again.”

Both Smitherman and Styron said the reason the PAYT system was changed was because the county had done a poor job of estimating revenues for it.

 “After several months, it was apparent that the new system would not generate the necessary revenue to keep the service solvent,” Smitherman noted.

Styron also disagrees with eliminating the C&D fee.

“I think you should have to pay something for C&D,” she said, adding that with the previous system, there were too many discrepancies in charges for the variety of C&D waste.

According to Smitherman, C&D is 15 percent of the mainland waste stream and 40 percent of Ocracoke’s.

Although Smitherman was not the manager when the current plan was debated, he said that in his experience, these types of fees are sometimes eliminated to encourage proper disposal and to discourage illegal dump sites.

As for revenues, the fiscal year 2011 solid waste revenue projections for Hyde County are as follows:

  • Ocracoke curbside residential collection: $398,000
  • Ocracoke curbside large business collection: $28,800
  • Ocracoke curbside small business collection: $30,000
  • Mainland curbside residential collection: $596,000
  • Mainland curbside commercial collection: $16,800

If these numbers hold true, Smitherman expects the solid waste budget to break even.

But the county may experience some difficulty there, he noted, as the accounts payable for trash fees on Ocracoke is currently at $29,000, which represents 103 accounts.  Trash payment arrears were not a problem last year on the island, he said.

Of those in arrears, 20 are businesses, representing approximately $7,100, and the remainder is residential accounts.

The county will send out another request for payment then seek civil action if necessary to collect the accounts.

Sending out monthly bills with this new system costs the county about $4,200, Styron said.

She said she knows of people who are not paying their bill because they don’t believe in this new system. But that is irresponsible, she said.

“You don’t not pay your bill,” she said. “That’s not being respectful of people already paying.”

Trash was not a big issue on the island until several years ago when the county shifted from including the trash expense as part of the tax bill to a user-based system.

 “When the trash fees were included in the taxes, it was more uniform,” Drilling said.

Much of the frustration among some Ocracokers on this and other issues is having its business managed by Hyde County, which is the manager for all municipalities in the county as none are incorporated and have their own governance.

Many on Ocracoke see this as the major problem of governance on the island—Ocracoke is 23 miles across the Pamlico Sound away from the county seat of Swan Quarter.

Smitherman, in a meeting at the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association in the fall, noted, however, that the county only controls about 20 percent of the county budget. Eighty percent of the budget is mandated by the state.

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