May 4, 2015

County board tables inlet issue on
agenda and takes up one that isn't


Dredging and how to pay for it dominated the Dare County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, with members tabling one issue while unexpectedly tackling another.

Within minutes of starting, the board agreed to remove a controversial agenda item on consolidation of Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission and the Oregon Inlet Task Force.

And shortly before ending, it took action on another controversial dredging issue that was not on the agenda. The board split 4-3 on a motion seeking authorization to tap county funds collected from a now-defunct 1-cent sales tax dedicated to beach nourishment  to use for dredging. 

Board chairman Bob Woodard along with Commissioners Warren Judge, Allen Burrus, and Jack Shea voted in favor of the motion, while Commissioners Beverly Boswell, Margarette Umphlett and Wally Overman opposed it.

Increased shoaling in the county’s waterways, coupled with drastic decreases in federal funding for inlet maintenance, has led to the county struggling to find a way to pay for dredging. The state and the Army Corps of Engineers are currently working on an agreement that would partner with the county to provide a dredge for up to 340 days of 12-hour shifts a year, with estimated costs of $7.3 million divided between the state and county. 

But the proposed merging of the inlet panels has stoked worry on Hatteras Island that sand-clogged channels in Hatteras Inlet will be overshadowed by shoaling problems in Oregon Inlet.

Despite the agenda change, a number of islanders spoke out during the public comment period about the importance of having Hatteras represented equally on whatever combination of the Oregon Inlet panels emerges, and to distribute maintenance funds fairly. 

“Consider renaming the group,” urged Jeffrey Aiken, owner of Jeffrey’s Seafood in Hatteras, “and develop a mission statement that is inclusive of both inlets, as well as all the waterways in Dare County.”

Saying she was speaking on behalf of the island’s marine industry, Sheryl Branstetter with Scott Boatyard in Buxton told the board that the fewer groundings lately in Hatteras are mainly because fewer boaters are going out.

“We all need to stick together,” she said. “Hatteras Inlet is a vital part of the Dare County economy, too.”

After a morning break in the meeting, Woodard announced that Commissioners Boswell, Burrus and Judge would study the committee merger issue and report back to the board within 30 days.

Some of the islanders’ concern was prompted by a recently circulated e-mail from a meeting of some members of both panels and three county commissioners that said that the focus of the new Task Force should remain on Oregon Inlet. It also stated that changing the name from Oregon Inlet would confuse contacts in Raleigh, Wilmington, and Washington, D.C.

At today's meeting, Jim Tobin, manager of Pirate’s Cove Marina and the chairman of the Task Force, commented that Oregon Inlet had been nearly completely closed, with two boats even striking the bridge, while Hatteras Inlet was still passable.

“We have worked for a long time trying to keep Oregon Inlet open,” he told the board, “and we’re willing to work to find funding to keep Hatteras Inlet open. But we need to stay focused.”

During Tobin’s remarks, Commissioner Allen Burrus angrily interrupted him,  saying that boats have also struck bottom in Hatteras Inlet, and that the shoaled ferry channel had to be moved to a longer natural channel. 

Burrus, who was asked by Chairman Bob Woodard to hold his comments, later defended his remarks, referring to “somebody who acts like a butthole” by insinuating he is not “telling you the truth.” He also said the days of the ‘60s and ‘70s are over, “when every thought was Oregon Inlet.”

But it was during county Manager Bobby Outten’s comments at the end of the meeting when the complications involved in the county’s options were put on the table, making it obvious that no option presented easy answers for either inlet.

The proposed -cent sales tax that would have funded most of the county’s share of annual dredging costs sailed through the state House of Representatives in just three days in late March. However, Outten said,  it now appears unlikely to pass in the state Senate.

That leaves the county needing to find funds elsewhere, he said, and  “there’s no good choices.”

Proposed state legislation that would have used a portion of the 2 percent occupancy tax that funds the county beach nourishment account was opposed by the beach towns, which said the funds were already committed to their pending projects. 

Eventually, the county proposed to use only its portion of the nourishment tax to fund dredging.

After rejecting a 6 percent cut in personnel and services and nixing a 3-cent tax increase, Outten said that it was finally determined through a complex funding model that money for dredging could be found in the beach nourishment fund dedicated to maintenance. The idea would be to limit the time-frame to five years and the withdrawals to $3 million a year, but the funds could be used for either inlet.

Since towns planning beach nourishment projects would not be due for maintenance for five years, he explained, the plan would allow the county to restore the funds before the maintenance costs are needed.  Town mayors were "lukewarm" but agreeable to the concept, he added.

Outten said that the option would require the county to get permission from the state legislature and the local government commission.

But Burrus said he was concerned that by asking the legislature to look at the occupancy tax, it could present an opening for the tax to be changed or removed.

“I’m just wondering what they might do,” he said. “We’ve got a target on us.”

In proposing a substitute motion to Commissioner Boswell’s motion to pursue Outten’s option, Commissioner Warren Judge suggested that the $5.5 million provided by a 1 cent sales tax for beach nourishment could be used to cover the first two years and buy time for the county. The tax was collected for six months beginning in January 2006 before it was soundly voted down in a countywide referendum.
Judge said that since the money has already been collected, and the authorizing legislation only has to add dredging to its permissible use, there should be no reason for legislators to oppose it.

“It’s not a new tax,” he said. “All it’s doing is it gives us the authority to take the money that’s already there. To me it seems fair and simpler.”

After further discussion, the measure was passed, with Boswell holding firm in her position of using a portion the 2 percent occupancy tax funds according to Outten's model.

“This is a huge gamble on our part to do either-or," Woodard said. "I like both proposals, to be honest with you. “

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