January 20, 2016

Commissioners approve economic development proposal


The Dare County Board of Commissioners last night approved spending $58,640 on an Economic Diversification Strategic Plan proposed by North Carolina State University's Office of Outreach and Engagement.

The vote was unanimous and came after a public hearing on the proposal drew just one speaker, Karen Brown, president and Chief Executive Office of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, who spoke in favor of the plan.

"I'm here to support your plan on the part  of the Chamber of Commerce," Brown said, calling it a plan that embraces the Chamber-supported goals of "embracing our assets" while exploring "opportunities for growth" in other sectors than the Outer Banks traditional industries of tourism, fishing, and construction.

Commissioner Jack Shea, who has been working all year on developing the proposal, made the motion to approve the plan and it was seconded by Commissioners Warren Judge, Beverly Boswell, and Wally Overman -- indicating its support on the board.

The details of the economic development plan are available in last week's editor's blog, "Dare County will focus on economic development in 2016."

Also on last night's short agenda was transferring money from the beach nourishment fund to the inlet maintenance fund.

Last year, the board created an inlet maintenance fund of $3 million for this fiscal year -- $1.25 million from general fund savings, about $750,000 from the sale of the county's old medical helicopter, and $1 million from the beach nourishment fund.

The money from the beach nourishment fund was budgeted pending the state legislature's approval of using the funds for inlet maintenance.  The switch was approved.

However, Outten said last night that the state wants the county to move only $500,000 in the fund to begin. That will be matched by $1 million from the state's inlet maintenance fund.

The board unanimously approved the $500,000 transfer.

The board delayed action on another agenda item -- leasing about 350 acres of farmland that the county owns next to the Dare County Landfill on the mainland.

For several decades, the land had been leased to Alexander Farms of Creswell.  This year when the county put out its request for proposals on a one-year lease on the land, Alexander Farms was outbid by Sow & Reap Farms LLC of Bath, N.C.  Sow & Reap bid almost $30,000  for the lease, and Alexander bid about $18,000.

The Sow & Reap Proposal was signed by former county commissioner, Mike Johnson.

A number of questions were raised about the Sow & Reap proposal during public comment at an earlier meeting of the commissioners, including questions about the company's location, references, short amount of time in business, and intentions.

Last night, when the lease was back on the table, Shea made a motion to approve it, which was seconded by Commissioner Margarette Umphlett.

However, Chairman Bob Woodard was clearly unhappy that no one was at the meeting from Sow & Reap to answer questions that had been raised. He said he had several concerns he needed to be addressed.

Commissioner Beverly Boswell agreed.  "There are too many questions and concerns," she said.

Shea withdrew his motion and Umphlett withdrew her second.  A representative from Sow & Reap will be asked to attend the next board meeting to answer questions.

At the beginning of last night's meeting, Woodard gave a report on the board's stewardship during 2015, which he called "a very challenging and productive year" for the county.

Woodard said he promised the new board would promote transparency and citizen participation, which he said has happened with a number of moves by the commissioners.

They have included:

  • The first county town hall meeting last January.  Woodard said the commissioners looked into every item raised by citizens who attended and responded to each one. There was another town hall meeting after last night's board meeting and the first town hall on Hatteras Island is planned for Feb. 4.
  • Increased time allotted for speakers at public comment during board meetings -- from three minutes to five minutes.
  • More citizen involvement on boards and committees.
  • Public invited to attend board's budget workshops and meetings with the county Board of Education.

Woodard said that while the county was not threatened by a major hurricane, it was threatened by the General Assembly's attempt to "take our tax money and give it to poor counties."  Board members worked hard on weekly trips to Raleigh to beat back the effort to redistribute the sales tax last year -- a  move that would devastate Dare's tourism economy.

"It's not over yet," Woodard said.  The General Assembly meets again this spring for a short session, and the county "must remain vigilant."

Woodard also noted that "our federal government has abandoned its obligation to take care of our inlets and waterways."

The job, he said, of protecting fishermen and the Dare economy fell to the Board of Commissioners, which created an Inlet Management Fund for pro-active maintenance of Oregon and Hatteras inlets.

Woodard referenced the day in June when Gov. Pat McCrory came to Hatteras Island to announce an end to the long legal standoff on replacing the Bonner Bridge. He called it "a joyous day for the board and the people of Hatteras Island."

"One of the reasons why the Board of Commissioners worked so hard to replace the Bonner Bridge and dredge our inlets is to secure a highway to work for our commercial fishermen," the chairman said. "They are a vital part of our community and a cornerstone of our economy.  That is also why the Board did not stand by in silence when the Marine Fisheries Commission and others threatened to take away their livelihood. "

During 2015, Woodard noted that the board issued several resolutions "in strong support of our fishermen."      

The board also kept beach nourishment projects on track.  The Park Service, he said, is expected to issue a permit to allow the county to nourish the beach in north Buxton to protect Highway 12 from the encroaching ocean. And the county is working with three towns for nourishment on the northern beaches.

Woodard noted that the independent auditor’s report on the 2015 budget showed that for the first time in eight years, there was considerable improvement in every financial component.  

"We put more money back into the General Fund -- $1.7 million -- and we dramatically improved the deficit on the insurance fund -- $682,000," he said.

In addition, he said, the commissioners worked with the Board of Education to provide an additional $400,000 for teachers’ salaries.

"As Chairman, I am proud to say that we were able to accomplish this without cutting services and without raising taxes," Woodard said.

Among the other achievements that Woodard listed was the economic development plan. He used the words of Commissioner Shea to describe the plan, saying it will not only diversify the economy but will also "optimize the existing pillars of our economy -- tourism, fishing, and construction."

Dare County has the two things needed to make that happen -- a "pro-business" Board of Commissioners and a skilled workforce "that is second to none."

He concluded by saying he is looking forward to 2016 and its "many opportunities" and he challenged Dare's citizens to "pay their civic rent" by getting involved in their county government.

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