By Connie Leinbach
With the N.C. Senate’s favorable first vote Tuesday night on the 2016-17 budget, the toll threat on the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry appears to be over for now, and the NC Ferry Division will get much-needed funding for its aging fleet.
The $22.34 billion spending plan retains much of what the House had sought in the way of relief for the NC DOT Ferry Division.
The Senate Tuesday night passed the report 33 to 16 in its first vote, according to information online at General Assembly’s website ncleg.org.
A second Senate vote is scheduled for today (Wednesday), after which the House will vote again and send the final spending plan of to Gov. Pat McCrory by the end of the week.
According to the document online, of the $10 million in additional money for the Ferry Division, $6 million is in nonrecurring funds for infrastructure and ferry refurbishment. Out of that $6 million, $3.65 is to be used to activate a passenger ferry trial. Then, $4 million will be provided each year for the Ferry Division to replace boats on existing routes.
Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), who is co-chair of the House Transportation Committee, was one of the transportation budget conferees along with Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk), both of whom helped negotiated the transportation section of the budget.
“The Ferry Division will have no excuse (about their budget needs),” Torbett said. “They’ll have $10 million more a year now.”
The bill also keeps the current tolled and untolled ferry routes status quo. However, should the proposed passenger ferry come about, that ferry may charge a toll. Also, any decisions to raise rates on the tolled routes rests with the Board of Transportation.
“This is a huge step forward in stabilizing the ferry system,” Tine said about these budget provisions.
Hyde County Manager Bill Rich Tuesday night noted that this compromise spending plan between the two legislative chambers allows enough money to replace aging ferries without having to take these funds out of the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization’s pot of $32 million to fund all transportation needs in the 10-county eastern North Carolina region.
“Overall, I think it was a tremendous compromise,” Rich said. “Tine and Torbett need a key to Ocracoke.”
When contacted for comment, The N.C. Ferry Division’s spokesman Timothy Hass said, “As a rule, we don’t comment on pending legislation.”
The final budget was completed by conference committees after the budgets proposed by each chamber did not agree.
Although both chambers earlier had agreed on the total amount to be spent, they disagreed on how to spend it, said Henri McClees of McClees Consulting, who is a lobbyist hired by Hyde County.
The House’s initial version of the budget included a recurring $13 million appropriation from the Highway Fund to the Ferry Division for the ferries as well as elimination of all ferry tolls. But the Senate’s budget version had no appropriation for the ferries, retained all the tolls and also had reinstated a $150 priority loading pass fee for the entire ferry system.
Torbett said that he and Tine took a pit bull-like approach during the conferencing period to arguing that the ferries are part of the highway system.
“Paul and I have continued to push this issue,” he said. “The tactic we used plus the input from the locals gave them the impetus to get this finally resolved.”
In addition to Tine and Torbett, the members of the transportation conference committee included Reps. Philip Shepherd and Ihler, and Senators Bill Rabon, Wesley Meredith and Rick Gunn.
Rabon has been a vocal advocate for a toll on the Hatteras ferry, and last year proposed enacting a $150 priority loading pass that anyone could purchase for any ferry system-wide.
Currently, Ocracoke Island residents may obtain free priority loading passes for the Hatteras ferry.
However, Tine said conferees conceded to enacting this fee only for vendors coming to the island. With this provision, companies will have the option to purchase a yearly priority pass for $150, or get in line with the rest.
Torbett said that other Republican members of the transportation conference committee wanted to retain the $150 priority pass for anyone to buy.
“That was the one thing we refused to do,” Torbett said about his and Tine’s negotiations. “We didn’t want residents to have to do that because it would be a further imposition.”
Tine said that he and Torbett kept focusing on the big picture of fixing the ferries and having smooth operations.
The other conferees were just tired of hearing about ferries, he said.
“We kept saying ‘let’s just fix this and move on,’” he said. “It’s a really good deal.”
Presumptive Hyde County Commissioner for Ocracoke Tom Pahl said overall, this is good news.
“It’s not everything we’re asking for, but it’s a compromise.” he said. “It shows the effectiveness of our citizens’ lobbying efforts.”
Additionally, the budget appropriates $200,000 to the Wildlife Resources Commission to develop Mattamuskeet Lodge.
Another section says that “deobligated” Community Development Block Grant funds may be used to assist in the development of commercial oyster entrepreneurs in coastal communities.
$1.03 million dollars is allocated to build oyster sanctuaries in Pamlico Sound and $300,000 to build new rotational harvest oyster reefs throughout the coast. The budget also includes $149,000 for two new positions at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to accelerate shellfish industry growth and increase shellfish production and recycling activities.
Other important aspects of the budget include the Senate’s plan to raise the standard income tax deduction–the amount on which taxpayers owe no taxes if they don’t itemize returns–to $17,500, from $15,500, over two years for a married couple.
The proposed spending plan also would boost the average salary for teachers for the coming school year to $50,186 including supplemental pay by counties.
Other state workers would receive a 1.5 percent raise, a one-time bonus equal to 0.5 percent of their annual salary and targeted merit raises.
State retirees will receive a one-time 1.6 percent COLA.
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