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By Connie Leinbach
Hyde County announced today that it will contribute $70,000 to help fund the operating costs of the proposed Ocracoke tram system in conjunction with the advent of passenger ferry service in 2018.
“In response to legitimate concerns that were expressed at last week’s meeting of the Occupancy Tax Board (OTB), we have decided to reduce our request by $70,000 and to make up the difference from the Hyde County budget,” said Ocracoke Commissioner Tom Pahl in a press release. “We are aware of the needs of other groups and organizations that depend on Occupancy Tax funds and we don’t want to hurt any of those groups. By reducing our request and spreading it out over two years, we are hoping the Occupancy Tax Board will be able to find the necessary funding for all of these critical needs.”
Hyde County had asked the OTB on Feb. 7 to fund the first-year operations cost of $216,000 for a three-vehicle village tram system. They had recommended that the board set aside $108,000 from the 2017-2018 budget and appropriate the same amount from the 2018-2019 budget.
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 on Hatteras and Ocracoke.
At the Feb. 7 meeting, attended by close to 80 islanders, Pahl, Hyde County Manager Bill Rich and others hired by the state to activate the passenger ferry, explained that a free tram system would supplement the other modes of transportation visitors arriving at the Silver Lake docks would need for their island visit.
Rich said the grant package from state and local sources covers the capital expense for this project, but not the operational costs of tram service.
Two of the trams would circulate around the village and the third one would take people from the north end of the village to the Lifeguard beach.
In making the request, Rich said Ocracoke needs some buy-in for these new transportation proposals, but some in the audience had asked where was Hyde County’s buy-in.
“It was a very legitimate concern,” Pahl said in an interview. “After that meeting, I said we need skin in the game.”
After conferring with Rich and the other four county commissioners, they agreed to find $70,000 in Hyde’s coffers to reduce the total request.
Pahl said the OTB can take this number, subtract it from the $216,000 total, and then decide to fund tram operations for $73,000 for each of the requested two years, or subtract the $70,000 another way.
“This was something we (the Hyde commissioners) all worked together on,” Pahl said about the county’s offer. “We didn’t want Hyde County to keep all of the reward of a successful economy on Ocracoke. We need to get through year one of this operation and have a satisfactory endeavor,” he said. “Then we’ll have to put our heads together and deal with where does the funding come from.”
Rich thinks the reward from the addition of passenger ferry service will speak for itself.
“Once this thing gets going, the increase in revenue to the businesses of Ocracoke and to the county will easily justify this expense,” Rich said about the tram service. “In fact, I don’t see it as an expense as much as an investment.”
Pahl stressed that the passenger ferry addresses Ocracoke’s loss of visitors since the inauguration of the long ferry route (of about an hour) running since late 2013 between Hatteras and the north end of Ocracoke.
This longer route was found after Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) caused more shoaling in the Hatteras Inlet largely filling in the short route (about 40 minutes) that historically had been used between islands.
“Here’s a benefactor saying I have $9 million to help you solve this economic problem,” he said about the grant package. “They’re just looking for some buy-in. Now Hyde County’s part of the buy-in. I think we should support the tram.”
Moreover, the addition of a passenger ferry does not preclude recreating the short (or shorter) route, he said.
“This (passenger ferry) doesn’t meant that can’t happen,” Pahl said. “Dredging come from other piles of money from a different group of decision-makers who are plodding along.”
In addition to Hyde’s buy-in for tram service, Pahl said county officials agreed to include a plan for the construction of public restrooms somewhere central to the village as a part of the continued funding which will be required starting the second year of the operation of the tram system.
“Several people raised the question of public restrooms at the meeting and it is something that the study addressed, but was included in the infrastructure proposal only at the new passenger ferry terminal and not in the village,” Pahl said.
County officials will seek funding to keep the tram in permanent operation, and along with those operating funds, they will seek revenue to build public restrooms.
According to Rich, those funds may come from a variety of sources including adding an additional 2 percent to the occupancy tax, or adding a quarter percent additional sales tax, or finding other grant money.
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.
Each year, the OTB decides how to dole out the fund money to island nonprofits from their grant proposals.
To read about the Feb. 7 Occupancy Tax Board meeting, click here.