March 8, 2012
UPDATE: Ocracoke board votes to pay for lobbyists to stop ferry toll increases



In a special meeting Wednesday night, March 7, the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board approved recommending a grant of $10,000 to Hyde County’s collaboration in hiring a lobbyist to fight the impending ferry toll increase.

Recently, Beaufort and Pamlico counties hired the husband-and-wife team of Joe and Henri McClees of Oriental to lobby legislators in Raleigh to fight last year’s legislative mandate to increase the tolls on the coastal ferries.  Hyde County commissioners, in a recent meeting, voted to join the two counties in this effort.

At the commissioners’ March 5 meeting, they learned that the Mainland Occupancy Tax Board voted not to give any money to this effort, although it did give the Engelhard Development Corporation $2,000 for a seafood festival.  

“I’m into survival here,” said Wayne Clark, owner of Edward’s of Ocracoke and a board member, in support of the appropriation.

Darlene Styron, the county commissioner who represents Ocracoke, said that dealing with government nowadays is a lot more technical and that this couple, between them, has 30 years of lobbying experience.

The McCleeses were on Ocracoke a couple of weeks ago to talk about this issue after Gov. Bev Perdue’s issued an executive order placing a moratorium on all new ferry tolls across the state.

“But they (the legislators) can overturn that,” Styron said of Perdue’s order.

The McCleeses, at the earlier meeting, said they would organize a big media event later in the spring, but urged citizens to continually contact legislators to voice their opposition to higher ferry tolls, which is, in effect, more tax.

“This affects Ocracoke dramatically,” Styron continued about the ferry toll issue.  “This whole thing with the tolling of the Hatteras ferry is going to come back.”  

The legislative mandate not to toll the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knotts Island ferries is only applicable for this year and next.

Corinne Gibbs, Hyde County finance manager, attended the meeting to confirm that the county’s budget has no room to pay for the lobbyists.  At a special commissioners’ meeting in February, the board voted to pay almost $3 million in outstanding bills for debris clean-up from Hurricane Irene out of its investment funds, or fund balance.  

Although the county has submitted this bill to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement, payment is not guaranteed, she said.  This payment caused Hyde to reduce its fund balance to close to the state-mandated 8 percent of the total budget.  So, Hyde cannot appropriate the $10,000 for lobbyists out of that fund, and the rest of the operating budget is “down to the bare bones,” she said.

“The fact of the matter is you know what a mess eastern North Carolina is in for the foreseeable future,” noted Rudy Austin, who was in the audience of about six.  “You already see that they are putting a toll on the poorest area of the state."

Noting that islanders don’t have the time and expertise to hang out in Raleigh, he urged the board to contribute the $10,000 since the McCleeses understand the fight, being from a coastal area, and they know how to talk to people in Raleigh.

 “The last 25 years are gone,” he said, referring to the good representation eastern North Carolina had in retired state Sen. Marc Basnight.  “We need to thank our lucky stars that we got our roads and the bridges done.”

Styron added that the county may set up a fund to which citizens can contribute for this lobbying effort.  The Hyde County Chamber of Commerce has contributed $300 towards the lobbyist filing fee, she said.

Clark also urged the Occupancy Tax Board to consider doing a special advertising campaign to attract more spring and fall tourists—for this year and years hence.

With beach closures, beach permit fees, higher gas prices, among other things, some tourists are electing not to come to Ocracoke.

“My concern is over the next several years,” he said.  “The occupancy tax amount over the years has been trending south.  Most of that is from fishermen, and the transportation system is fragile.  If (an advertising campaign) is successful, it will bring in more tax.”

The board will work on this idea in the next several weeks.

TO READ MORE ON FERRY TOLLS

Lobbyists rally support for no ‘ferry tax’
Governor aiming to block ferry toll increases
Hyde County is gearing up to take on legislators over ferry tolls
Ocracokers turn out in force to oppose increase in ferry tolls


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