The Ocracoke Observer’s Connie Leinbach details some of the important issues that have been covered in recent Hyde County Commissioners monthly meetings.
Ferry funding, dredging
In their $30 billion, two-year spending plan finalized late September, the North Carolina General Assembly has allocated $74 million to the Ferry Division, up from last year’s $58.5 million. But in 2024-2025, that appropriation will go down to $64.68 million.
“Much of that increase is for capital expenditures,” said Randal Mathews, Ocracoke’s county commissioner. “It will not go to maintenance and operations, which means that the Hatteras-Ocracoke route may not get the boost we need to maintain the frequency of trips that we have been accustomed to. This causes me great concern in addition to the roadblocks that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) is causing with delayed permits and lack of funding.”
He said the high cost of the Hatteras-Ocracoke route is directly related to the inability of the ACE to maintain the federal channel.
Mathews and the rest of the commissioners sent a letter earlier this month (see below) to Ocracoke’s three Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., requesting help to adequately dredge in the Hatteras Inlet.
“The Army Corps is failing us,” Mathews said in an interview on Wednesday, noting that the county has not heard anything yet.
The ACE, he said, continually says there’s not enough money or other ports with more tonnage get priority, and this foot dragging is hurting Ocracoke.
He said the permit process goes through multiple agencies that can delay projects.
“The natural channels can change during the yearlong permit process rendering the proposed projects useless by the time dredging begins,” he said. “We need some environmental exceptions made to facilitate quicker permitting so we are not wasting the taxpayers’ money. There are solutions but we need the Army Corps to think outside the box to keep the federal channels viable.
“They can find money to dredge up on Dare County, but they can’t find money to dredge to keep the ferries running to us. It’s pretty obvious we’re taking a big hit this year.”
In the letter, he said the inlet needs more dredging by a pipeline dredge.
“We can no longer continue to rely on hopper style or side cast dredges to maintain those areas,” Mathews said in his letter. “The federal government must support the USACE in providing reliable pipeline dredging projects between Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.”
The next Dare County Waterways Commission meeting is at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Dare County government center in Manteo.
Real estate transfer tax
The Hyde County commissioners are eyeing enacting an additional real estate transfer tax as a new revenue source.
The commissioners in their Sept. 6 meeting heard a presentation about the tax. Only seven North Carolina Counties levy an additional $1 per $100 over the current state transfer tax rate of $1 per $500 of sale, the revenue of which is shared by the state and local government.
The additional tax revenues would go solely to Hyde County.
Seth Moore, a Hyde County Fellow, said had Hyde County already had this tax, over the last five years it would have generated about $350,000 each year and would have brought in nearly $3 million.
Martha Garrish, real estate broker with Ocracoke Island Realty, said that if the additional tax was levied, on a $500,000 home sale, the transfer tax, called a deed revenue stamp, would be $1,000 plus an additional $5,000, or a total of $6,000.
By statute, North Carolina counties can institute either a real estate transfer tax or an additional sales tax, but whichever one they choose has to be approved by the North Carolina General Assembly.
Commissioner Chair Earl Pugh Jr. said he would like to get public input before deciding.
Moore said Hyde could garner more money through an addition to the transfer tax than through an additional sales tax without having to raise property taxes, but income each year would fluctuate depending on real estate sales.
In Hyde County, the property tax rate already is higher than the state average.
According to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners 2020/2021 assessment, the average property tax rate in North Carolina was 0.68 % and the property tax rate in Hyde County was 0.77 %.
The other counties that levy the additional tax are Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Pasquotank, Perquimans and Washington, and they allocate the revenues to their capital funds.
Hyde County Manager Kris Noble said she would have sales tax revenue data for the October meeting.
At a special meeting Sept. 25 to review the audit for 2022, Alan Thompson, a CPA with Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams & Co, P.A. of Whiteville, noted that expenditures exceeded tax collections and that the audit showed several findings the county has to deal with.
Specific figures were not given as the audit was not placed on the county’s website.
Commissioner Ben Simmons noted that the commissioners raised the tax rate for 2023.
“Are we on the path to being in that positive number?”
“Not quite,” Thompson said, adding that the county has to do the tough thing and raise taxes.
The county has about a month to respond to the findings and Noble said that she hopes the corrective actions will be ready for approval in October.
John Wilson, interim EMS director, told the commissioners that he’s ahead of his six-month plan for revamping the department.
Staffing is an issue across North Carolina because of the COVID pandemic, but now we’re in a post-COVID world. He is reviewing where the county can adapt and improve its service.
In a subsequent interview, he said there is always a paramedic on Ocracoke and that the goal is to have three of his staff on the island all the time.
He and the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department are collaborating on a plan to offer EMT training on Ocracoke through Beaufort County Community College.
The commissioners passed the revised Ocracoke Development Ordinance prohibiting dogs running at large in Ocracoke village. The first offence would carry a $250 fine and the second a $500 fine.
Mathews also said at the September meeting the state budget includes $842,000 for Hyde County to expand the Tekniam project, which is an emergency backup communications system, on Ocracoke.