Toward the end of his comments at today’s special meeting and just before the Board of Commissioners voted on a resolution to ask the General Assembly to authorize a quarter-cent sales tax increase without a referendum to pay for inlet dredging, Chairman Bob Woodard asked the sheriff’s deputies in the meeting room to turn out the lights.
“Cut every one of them off,” he said.
“How do you feel in the dark?” he asked his fellow commissioners and the large crowd in the room.
“How do you feel Mary Helen and Neel?” he asked two reporters. “Can you write?”
“Do you feel uncomfortable?” he asked the crowd again.
After the lights were turned back on, Woodard said, “That’s how half of you in the audience feel every day.”
He was referring to the boat captains and fishermen and their supporters who came to support the resolution to help deal with the dangerous, badly shoaled, and almost closed Oregon Inlet.
Further addressing the watermen, he said they feel that way because “you haven’t been able to drive on the highway on your way to work” — an allusion to the channel in the inlet that leads to their work in the ocean.
It was a dramatic gesture in what was an impassioned speech by Woodard — not only about the inlet but about other issues that threaten the county’s economic stability.
“These folks have lives,” he said. “These folks have families….They’ve waited 40 years. It’s time to make this happen.”
Forty years is the how long all of those involved have been working on a long-term solution to keeping the inlets open, according to speakers at many recent public meetings, though it’s not exactly clear where that number comes from.
Suffice to say that the fight has been going on for a long time to keep federally designated channels in both Hatteras and Oregon Inlet open to the sea to support hundreds of jobs and the multi-million-dollar commercial and charter fishing industries.
The federal government once provided funds to dredge those inlets, but the funds have dwindled to nothing in recent years. Woodard said several commissioners and the county manager recently visited several members of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation and were told, flat out, that there were no federal funds for dredging.
“The federal government has abandoned us,” Commissioner Warren Judge said at one point in today’s meeting.
Woodward was much more emotional about the Washington trip.
“The money’s all going to Afghanistan,” he said. “When are we going to take care of the infrastructure here?”
He said hearing from members of Congress that there were no funds for a community in need was “like driving a knife into your heart.”
Dredging in the future will have to be paid for by the state and local governments, a fact that most have accepted at this point.
Senate Bill 160, introduced earlier this month at the General Assembly and sponsored by state Sen. Bill Cook, addresses some of the issues related to state and local governments paying to keep the shallow-draft inlets open.
In that bill, Cook included a section that would have allowed Dare County to use part of the funds it receives from a 6 percent occupancy tax on short-term rentals to pay for the local share of dredging. The Board of Commissioners considered its support of that section of SB 360 at its March 2 meeting.
The occupancy tax currently is designated for the county and its towns to provide services and infrastructure to visitors, promoting tourism, and beach nourishment. Town and tourism officials, representatives of industry groups, and other citizens were not enthusiastic about the thought that the occupancy tax funds might be diverted to dredging — even though they all said they realized the need.
After hearing 32 speakers that morning and surveying the standing room only crowd in the meeting room, the commissioners decided to ask Cook to remove that Dare County section from the bill. The vote was 6-1 with only Commissioner Beverly Boswell supporting using the occupancy tax.
Instead, the commissioners approved a motion to add the equivalent of Dare County’s share of 3 percent of the occupancy tax — about $3.8 million — as a line item for Oregon and Hatteras inlet dredging in the county budget.
However, the commissioners and all of those involved with the dredging issue realize the need for a long-term funding source. At Oregon Inlet, the situation will ease when and if the Bonner Bridge is replaced and the current bridge removed. (The bridge design will improve access to the channel in Oregon Inlet.)
Thus, the commissioners began looking at a sales tax increase dedicated to inlet dredging.
Sales tax increases must be approved by the General Assembly, and last week the chairman called a special meeting for this morning to consider a resolution to ask the legislature to expand the local option sales tax and authorize a half-cent sales tax without a referendum to fund inlet dredging.
In the meantime, several commissioners made a trip to Raleigh to meet with legislators and other officials on several issues, including dredging. Woodard said this morning that they were told that the half-cent increase was out of the question — but that a quarter-cent might be possible.
Thus, the discussion at the meeting was on a resolution to ask the General Assembly to “authorize a quarter-cent sales tax without a referendum as an urgent and timely matter of public safety and economic importance.”
A quarter-cent sales tax would raise a little more than $3 million of the $7 million that the commissioners say it will take to keep the inlet dredged year-round.
About 10 speakers addressed the board during the meeting’s public comment period. Most, including a representative of the Outer Banks Hotel and Motel Association and several boat captains, spoke in favor of the sales tax. Only one speaker outright opposed it.
According to Commissioner Margarette Umphlett, the commissioners “would have liked to have had the time for a referendum.”
“We don’t have the time,” she said. “This needs to be done tomorrow.”
There was no time-frame discussed at the meeting on getting a bill passed and signed by the governor, but legislating doesn’t usually happen quickly.
“I will support this request,” Woodard said, adding that he did not see it as a political issue — a Republican or a Democratic issue.
“I never promised anyone from my party that I would agree with everything that my party wants me to do,” he said.
Commissioners Wally Overman, Umphlett, Judge, and Jack Shea favored the request for the sales tax increase. Commissioner Allen Burrus did not attend the meeting because of previous business commitments.
Commissioner Beverly Boswell was the lone holdout again the sales tax, which she called a “regressive” tax.
She said that Cook has given the board “a great tool for our tool box” with the ability to use occupancy tax funds. She also noted that if the board had the ability to use a portion of the occupancy tax, she would favor taking part of the funding from “tourism” — the Visitors Bureau.
She also said the commissioners need to look at the county budget for ways to pay for dredging.
Two changes were made to the resolution as it was presented — one to specifically add Hatteras Inlet and another to add a “sunset” clause on the sales tax that would end it when the Bonner Bridge is replaced.
In the end, the vote in favor of the resolution was 5-1, with Boswell voting against.
‘A LOT ON OUR PLATE’
The Dare County commissioners met last night in the first of several workshops on the Dare County budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Chairman Woodard opened the meeting, saying “Everything is on the table.”
“In the last month, we have had a lot thrown at us,” he said. “But we’re going to get through this. We’re going to look at everything. We have a lot on our plate.”
On the commissioners’ plate as the county looks at next year’s budget are:
Paying for their commitment to dredge Oregon Inlet. That will be about $3.8 million for Oregon Inlet for the coming year that must be found from either trimming the budget or increasing revenue. There’s been no specific discussion of funding to dredge Hatteras Inlet.
Paying for long-term dredging of Oregon and Hatteras inlets.
The section in Senate Bill 160, which would allow the commissioners to use the occupancy taxes to pay for dredging. This is still in play. At its March 2 meeting, the board decided not to repurpose part of the occupancy tax for inlet dredging and asked Sen. Cook to remove it from the bill. However, it was not removed and remains in the bill, which is now in committee. Cook has said that it can be removed with an amendment. However, there are no guarantees this will happen as the bill makes it through the General Assembly.
Paying for beach nourishment at Buxton, which is expected to cost about $25 million. The funds are expected to come from the 2-cent occupancy tax that is earmarked for the purpose. The commissioners must decide in the current budget discussions whether Hatteras Island will have to pay more in property taxes to help pay for the project. In Nags Head, which did a nourishment project a few years ago, and in three towns that are planning projects, taxpayers are footing part of the bill. At least three commissioners have said they are in favor of Hatteras islanders making a financial contribution to Buxton restoration as a matter of fairness.
A bill to reapportion sales tax to benefit the state’s poorer, rural counties. This bill, introduced earlier this week by Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, would change the formula for distributing sales tax. And Dare County stands to lose $12 million if the bill passes.
Senate Bill 369 is the real threat to the county in the long run. If it becomes law, it would mean economic devastation for Dare County.
Currently, the tax is distributed to counties based 75 percent on point of sale and 25 percent on population with an adjustment formula to help some counties with low year-round populations that grow considerably during the tourist season — such as Dare.
The bill would change that to distribution to counties based only on population.
The new plan would increase ? in some cases double ? the amount that some poorer, rural counties would receive, while reducing revenues flowing to more prosperous areas.
Brown said at a news conference on Monday that the rural counties are being shortchanged by a system that gives sales taxes to urban centers with shopping malls and big-box stores.
Now, the irony of this is not being lost on Democrats, who are usually viewed as the politicians most eager to redistribute the wealth.
So why, you might ask, would Republicans be so eager to redistribute the wealth and help poor people?
Well, first of all, it’s not clear that all of them are — Gov. Pat McCrory has said he opposes the bill and senators from the state’s big urban counties that benefit from shoppers who come there from rural areas to shop aren’t too thrilled either.
However, it’s clear that Dare County is the biggest loser in this new distribution plan and it’s clear that Sen. Brown is evening an old score.
Also at his news conference he said, that the current plan, with its adjustment formula for counties with heavy tourism, was designed to “enrich the home counties of a few powerful leaders.” And he mentioned a powerful Senate leader — not by name — whose home county reaps the greatest benefit from the current plan.
However, everyone knows he was talking about Dare County’s native son, Marc Basnight, who retired for health reasons in 2011 after serving 13 terms in the Senate, the last nine as President Pro Tem.
Woodard said in a recent radio interview that he “was disappointed to hear that comment.”
“I took offense to it,” he said, adding that he defended Basnight’s years of service to the state and Dare County.
Before last night’s budget workshop, he handed out this statement on Brown’s bill:
?The proposal to redistribute the North Carolina Sales Tax would have a devastating impact on Dare County and its municipalities. The plan that is now before the state legislature would represent a drastic $12,020,898 revenue shortfall for Dare County. If enacted, this would have a drastic effect on Dare County?s ability to provide cost effective services for its residents and visitors. In addition, each of the towns in Dare County would receive substantially less sales tax revenue, which would cause economic disruption throughout our entire community.?
And at today’s board meeting, Woodard called Brown “a senator who want to turn his back on Dare County.”
He added that Brown is saying to Dare, “You people are privileged. You people are lucky. You people are spoiled.”
That, he said, is coming from a senator who represents one county — Jones — that would get 163 percent more in sales taxes than it does now under the new plan and another — Onslow, which would get 24 percent more.
Some in Raleigh are now talking about amending the plan, but it’s clear that if it should pass in its current form, it would devastate Dare County.
However, last night’s budget workshop also showed that even without the loss of $12 million in sales tax, the commissioners will be challenged to make the cuts they want and/or need.
County manager Bobby Outten said the purpose of the first workshop was to give the commissioners “an overview.” He said he was not making recommendations. “All I am trying to do is give you some choices,” he said.
In general, the early look shows a $7 million gap between revenue and budget requests. About half of that, Outten said, is the money for inlet dredging.
As the commissioners discussed some of the items on Outten’s discretionary services list, it became even more clear that getting the money won’t be easy.
One of them is the rubble site in Buxton. It costs $700,000 a year to haul the rubble to Manns Harbor. The county could stop hauling.
However, Commissioner Burrus, noted that if the site was not available, people would dump refuse along the road, and the county would end up dealing with it anyway.
“You’re going to have a mess,” he warned.
The county pays $450,000 a year to provide substance abuse counseling services at New Horizons. But board members agreed that it would not be a good idea to close the Nags Head facility.
“There’s a real need in this county for mental health,” Commissioner Shea said.
Fees for services could be increased, including fees at Parks and Recreation centers, where the fees are about a third of what they are in some other places. Some commissioners opposed that.
“Our people are hit hard enough,” said Umphlett.
“We want to encourage young people and their families to stay here, not leave,” said Burrus.
How about mosquito control? Board members agreed the public would not be happy in the summer.
“Mosquitoes are not just a pest,” said Shea. “They carry diseases.”
?Sitting here right now, I don?t have a problem with it,? Burrus said. ?But come July, when they?re eating me up, I will have a problem with it.?
The question of county employees came up.
“In the short time I’ve been on the board, I’ve heard over and over again that we have way too many employees,” said Umphlett.
However, it’s not easy to figure out where to cut.
“Anything that’s done with a position or a person has to be looked at in a case-by-case basis,” said Overman. We can’t take a broad brush. As things get tighter, it may require a harder look.”
For sure, there’s a lot on their plate. And it’s going to be a long spring before there a budget by the end of June and the General Assembly adjourns — whenever that is.
(Reporter Catherine Kozak attended the county budget workshop and contributed to this blog.)