June 22, 2015



Tine convenes pow-wow to discuss funding dredging projects

BY CATHERINE KOZAK



State Rep. Paul Tine used some tough talk with a roomful of Dare County movers and shakers concerned about long -term solutions for the county's inlets when he told them this morning that they’d better rally the troops if they want to be heard in Raleigh.

“If y’all have a position, you really need to engage your people,” he said.  “If it’s going to go to a referendum, you really need to do a lot of work to organize. If you’re going to go to the people, they’re going to have to understand how important Oregon Inlet is, how important Hatteras Inlet is.”

More than 26 public officials and representatives from the business community --some actively engaged in proxy spitting matches over funding inlet dredging and beach nourishment -- met for a pow-wow with Tine to hash out the options.

“This is not an us-versus-them proposition,” he told the group assembled at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute. “It is not either tourism or dredging. It is both tourism and dredging – how do we get that accomplished?”

Tine, who is from Kitty Hawk and is unaffiliated, called the numerous stakeholders together, he said, to talk about funding proposals for dredging the inlets that are currently being considered in Raleigh, as well as other ideas that are less likely to be considered.

In recent months, the dredging issue has become conflated with beach nourishment projects in the public arena because of a bill proposed in the state Senate that would take money from the beach nourishment account, funded by a 2 cent occupancy tax , and use it to pay most of the county share of costs to dredge the inlets.

But that provision in Senate Bill 160, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort,  caught even county officials by surprise, and quickly launched an increasingly contentious debate about use of the nourishment fund.

The county needs to find about $3.5 million annually to match state funds that would be provided for proactive dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Only three mechanisms are available to find the funds, Tine said:
  • New legislation to increase the sales tax by cent – without a referendum -- which translates to 25 cents per $100. The bill would sunset after construction of the Bonner Bridge replacement was completed. A bill to do this passed the House in early April, but Tine said that the Senate has so far not supported that option.
  • A referendum asking residents to approve an increase of cent in the sales tax.  The downside of this option, Tine said, is that if the measure failed, it could not be brought up again for another five years. But the county already has the authority to hold the referendum.
  • Legislation that would allow the county to use up to $3 million of future occupancy tax revenue for dredging.  As the law is now, the only use allowed is for nourishment.  But town officials say the funds have already been committed to their projects and borrowing them would jeopardize ongoing nourishment needs.  
Tine said that the House favors allowing the county to do the -cent tax. It is not clear why the Senate is opposed to that tax. Sen. Cook’s office did not respond immediately to a request to explain the opposition.

Also, statewide lobbyists for hotel/motels and restaurants are strongly opposed to use of occupancy taxes for anything other than tourism-related purposes, Tine said.

Bob Edwards, mayor of Nags Head, said that everyone seems to agree that funds need to be provided to dredge Oregon Inlet. But using the beach nourishment funds to pay for it, he said, is too risky.

“We are really marginal,” he said.  “If we have a little blip in the economy, we run out of funds for beach nourishment. The other downside is if you take $15 million out of that fund, sooner or later, the taxpayers in those municipalities will be paying.”

Edwards said that the town supports the -cent sales tax.

“We need a permanent funding solution that’s there year in and year out,” he said, “because the dredging problems are not going away.”

The dedicated 2-cent occupancy tax for beach nourishment, although it is shared, goes initially to the county, not the towns, said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten. So far, he said, about $100,000 has been paid for sand fencing, and about $28 million has been paid for Nags Head’s project.  Also “multiple millions” have been spent for upfront costs. Between Buxton and the town projects, he said, the fund has paid out $37 million.

Earlier, Outten had proposed that if the Senate bill is passed, the county use a five-year funding plan that would allow it to borrow its share from the account to pay for dredging, while still meeting the needs of the town projects.  But that is only a short-term solution.

“Whatever we do here in this legislative session,” he added, “isn’t going to make this go away.”

Micah Daniels with Wanchese Fish Co. said she is opposed to the -cent tax, adding that Oregon Inlet urgently needs help, and that could be achieved faster with the Senate bill.

“That tax is not going to affect people in the room,” she said. “There are people in this county who do live paycheck to paycheck. Do we value that people come here to fish, that we’re the billfish capital of the world?”

But Tine reiterated that it is not about winners and losers, or nourishment versus dredging. Instead, it comes down to the right balance.

“What I take exception to,” he told Daniels, “is we’re not valuing the inlet if we choose a different way to fund it . . . The question is how we move from where we are today. Unfortunately, the reality is, the way the legislature works, there’s no immediate solution.”

Jim Tobin, chairman of the county’s Oregon Inlet Task Force, encouraged Tine to support the Senate bill as a short-term solution and to work on the getting the cent tax for the long term.

“But that’s going to take some time,” Tobin said. “The only solution I see is to dip into the fund for a while."

Jeff Oden, a Hatteras motel owner as well as a commercial fisherman, said that shoaling in Hatteras Inlet also affects commerce and the county’s economy, and that dredging is also a necessity there.

“There are a lot of impacts other than Oregon Inlet,” he said.

Considering that there would be little to no support to raise property taxes in the county, Bob Woodard, the chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said that borrowing  funds from the occupancy tax plan would make the most sense. The county would be using it’s own share of the tax, and has promised to cover up to 50 percent of maintenance costs for town projects.

“To me, it’s a no brainer,” he said. “So for the life of me, I can’t understand, with the amount of money that’s being spent on beach nourishment, that there’s reluctance for us to spend $3 million of our own money.”

Sheila Davies, the mayor of Kill Devil Hills, proposed a combination of the -cent tax and the “flexibility” for the county to use the occupancy tax.

“My biggest fear is that something changes and we have to go back to the taxpayer,” she said.

Dare County Commissioner Warren Judge said that it is clear that a stable revenue source must be found.

“All the options that are on the table are inadequate because of the timelines that are coming fast,” he said.  “Before you know it, it’ll be five years, and what are we going to do then?”

Tine said he encourages the roundtable participants as well as residents to e-mail him or call him with feedback or input into the issue. A long term solution, he said,  will take involvement of the entire community.

“Nothing we say here is binding,” Tine told the group. ‘Nothing here is secret. My expectation is that you will go back and talk about this.” 

Tine said he had not wanted press coverage of this morning's meeting because he was concerned that people may fear being direct, or that they might grandstand. But when a reporter showed up, he decided that it would not hinder the process to be open.

“It’s great to have this (meeting),” said Mikey Daniels, with Wanchese Fish Co.  “You always wonder what other people are thinking – if they’re not waving or whatever. We don’t see y’all. You don’t understand our problems, and we don’t understand your problems.”

(Rep. Paul Tine's e-mail is [email protected]. His phone number is 252-305-5133.)
       





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