By Connie Leinbach
Islanders had lots of questions at an Occupancy Tax board meeting Feb. 7 about Hyde County’s request to fund operations costs of $216,000 for the first year of village tram service in 2018 in conjunction with the addition of passenger ferry service to the island.
The board did not make a decision but will do so at a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22 in the Community Center.
Chairman Bob Chestnut said that while the meeting will be open, it will be a working session for us and there will not be
an opportunity for questions or comments from the audience.
At this point, if someone wants to be heard they should email their comments to Chestnut and he will pass them along to the board prior to the meeting.
Chestnut’s email is email@example.com.
At the Feb. 7 meeting, Bill Rich, Hyde County manager, formally asked the board to set aside $108,000 in both the 2016 to 2017 and 2017 to 2018 fiscal years for the project.
The passenger ferry is expected to begin runs sometime in 2018, and asking for half of this total amount this fiscal year and half next would “soften the blow” on the Occupancy Tax funds, Rich said.
Of the total amount, $123,000 would be for salaries and wages; $61,000 would be for the direct costs of three 23-passenger trams, such as maintenance, fuel, training and insurance; and $32,000 would be for indirect costs.
None of these were broken down for the audience, but the Occupancy Tax Board members received a
Last June, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $3.6 million to the Ferry Division to activate the passenger ferry, and the N.C. Ferry Division applied for and received a Federal Lands Access Program grant of about $7 million that would include the building of one passenger ferry and cover the costs of a village tram system, including infrastructure.
However, Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner, explained that the county would be on the hook to pay for the operating costs of a tram system.
Hyde County would lease the trams from the NCDOT. Beverly Paul, director of the nonprofit Hyde County Transit, said they are looking into whether the trams should be electric or gas and where they would be housed.
“Once (the passengers) arrive, they need a way to get around the island,” said Will Letchworth, a transportation engineer with Volkert, who did the passenger ferry feasibility study. Arriving passengers could choose the tram or other means of getting around the island.
Two passenger ferries making several round trips a day from Hatteras to Silver Lake could potentially bring 500 people, he said. In addition to another terminal at the ferry dock, some sidewalk improvements around the curve on Irvin Garrish Highway near the Berkley Manor would be required.
Letchworth said his firm surveyed 4,000 people at the ferry docks in 2015 and 90 percent were day trippers wanting to shop and go to the beach.
“There’s a demand for people in their cars to use (the tram),” he said.
A critical aspect for this first year would be that tram service be free.
Two trams would circulate around the village, and one would be an express to the Lifeguard Beach from Howard’s Pub.
Rich explained that the entire grant package from state and local sources covers the capital expense for two passenger ferries, infrastructure on Hatteras and Ocracoke and tram service on Ocracoke, but not the operational costs of said tram service.
“We always assumed operation costs would not be part of the grants,” Rich said. “Tourism, agriculture and fishing are our main industries in Hyde County and this is our effort to make tourism more important than it is,” Rich said.
Two of the 23-passenger trams would circulate around the village and the third one would take people from the north end of the village to the Lifeguard beach.
The idea is to have the tram be free and open to any and all who want to hop on and hop off.
“Locals going to work could hop on,” said Claire Brinkley, a transit planner, who was one of several others in attendance. “The best use of public money is to make it available for everyone.”
“What if others non on the passenger ferry clog it up?” said Sue Dayton.
“I hope it gets overused,” said Alan Sutton, owner of Tradewinds Tackle.
Some islanders were concerned about the stops along the proposed route, most of which are narrow streets with no sidewalks, and would have visitors standing around in peoples’ yards waiting for trams, but Letchworth and Pahl said the route could be further discussed.
A proposed stop at Springer’s Point would cause traffic congestion and people milling around in an area that has no space for people to wait.
“I don’t think it needs to go down Loop Road,” said islander Debbie Leonard after the meeting.
A couple of islanders asked about funding for subsequent years, but Rich said he didn’t know about that.
“We think this will sell itself,” he said. “If sales tax (revenues) goes up like we think, we won’t need Occupancy Tax.”
The Occupancy Tax fund is derived from a 3 percent tax on top of the 6.75 percent sales tax on all lodging nights purchased, both hotels and rental homes. Yearly receipts generally amount to about $440,000, although in the 2015 fiscal year, total receipts were $453,780 and last year they were $454,535. The county receives 10 percent of that total to administer the fund.
Once you set aside the reserve, Chestnut said there’s only $365,000 to fund all of the projects seeking money.
“What’s plan B?” he asked. “What if we don’t give all (of the request)?”
Pahl said he would follow the Occupancy Tax Board’s recommendation.
“It’s not my intention to override the Occupancy Tax Board,” he said. He was referring to the fact that the Hyde Board of Commissioners has the authority to not accept or override any spending recommendations by the Occupancy Tax board.
Earl Pugh Jr, chairman of the Hyde County Board Commissioners, concurred with Pahl.
“Ocracoke Occupancy Tax is county money, but it’s for Ocracoke,” said Darlene Styron, owner of the Sweet Tooth and a former Hyde County commissioner. “Why can’t the county put some money into this?”
Stephanie O’Neal, one of the Occupancy Tax Board members agreed and suggested that the county also look into other sources of funding.
Pahl said this idea hadn’t been part of the budget but could be part of the discussion.
Rich added that the state is looking for community to have some buy-in.
“Sure, it’s a risk, but it’s a darn good one,” he said.
Among the concerns islanders had was that these trams would cause more street congestion in the already-congested summer months. What if the wind picks up and the ferries can’t run? What if a passenger ferry breaks down?
Jimmy Jackson noted that a village trolley in the 1990s created traffic problems.
A few made comments about the lack of public restrooms in the village except for at the NPS Visitors Center and the Lifeguard Beach.
Kari Styron said it seemed like a lot of money to spend for just a few months.
Letchworth said the passenger ferry would run in the high season, from May to September as would the trams.
Kris Noble, assistant Hyde County manager and county planner, added that they are looking into what else the trams could be used for in the community, such as shuttling people to games at Community Park and around the village for Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree.
Elizabeth Dyer, who moved to the island a few years ago, said that as a visitor for decades she would have loved to have had something like this proposed tram.
“You will make a space for visitors to come together,” she said. “It will be a great thing to circulate. It’s a great idea.”
Also attending the meeting was Ed Timoney, the passenger ferry project manager.
“Everyone has a lot of good questions,” he said after the meeting, adding that a request-for-proposal should go out in April. “It’s a new undertaking for the NCDOT and for Ocracoke,” he continued. “There are a lot of issues Ocracoke has that have to be resolved. There’s a lot of interest in the community. A lot want to see their community succeed.”