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Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
A new tram service to move passenger ferry visitors around the village got closer to reality last night when the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board approved a $35,000 request from the Hyde County to help cover the operating costs of the service for the first year in 2018.
The passenger ferry is scheduled to begin late spring of 2018.
Hyde County’s request to fund operational costs of a village tram has been the subject of island discussion since Feb. 9 when they first broached the subject to the Occupancy Tax Board and in three public meetings following that.
Hyde’s initial request in February was for Ocracoke Occupancy Tax to pay for the total projected
operations of $216,000 over two years, but after that first meeting attended by close to 80 islanders, some of whom suggested the county contribute, the county revised its request to $70,000 over two years and it would help with the costs. Hyde will have to request another $35,000 next year.
“(The tram) has become a political football,” said Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner, who spoke about this project. “But I ask you to consider it based on its merits—the same merits as shared by the passenger ferry as a whole which addresses declining visitorship.”
Pahl noted that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, as reported recently by Superintendent David Hallac, had its highest visitor attendance ever last year while Ocracoke last year had its lowest in the last 10 years.
“That’s the merit,” Pahl said.
Today, Pahl said that getting the OT board’s support was important to the county.
“We are looking forward to getting the project underway,” he said. “I think the passenger ferry and the tram will be great assets to the community.”
He also had praise for the board members.
“I think the OTB did a great job for reviewing the requests and worked real hard in making their final decisions and showed a lot of care in helping with the requests.”
As for the other island nonprofits, 13 organizations had filed applications to fund projects totaling $466,934.
Bob Chestnut, chairman of the five-member board, said at the beginning of the meeting that the county expects to collect $490,000 in total occupancy tax by June 30. Of that, Hyde County, by law, receives 10 percent of the total for administration of the fund.
The total fund balance is $681,000, Chestnut said, and $300,000 of that must stay in reserve.
So, the board had only $381,330 available to award this year. After hearing from some of the 30 attendees, both representing the organizations and interested citizens, the board awarded $381,740 out of the fund for the next fiscal year.
Two big-ticket items were granted their full requests. The Ocracoke Youth Center received $48,000 to help pay off the loan for the Community ball park and the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department $80,000 for equipment and other expenses.
Teresa O’Neal, a board member of the Ocracoke Fire Prevention Association, noted that two aging fire trucks will need to be replaced eventually. Fire Chief Albert O’Neal noted that if a new volunteer shows up join, it costs $5,000 in equipment for that person.
Speaking for the Ocracoke Foundation, Scott Bradley, president, said the foundation had purchased the Community Square in 2013 to preserve, protect and revitalize the five structures and docks that are on the National Register of Historic Places. He said he believed it was the first time that the Ocracoke Foundation, created in 2006, has requested OTB funds. The Foundation needs funds to repair the buildings that are between 80 and 116 years old and docks that were damaged last October by Tropical Storm Hermine and Hurricane Matthew, he said. The Foundation was given $34,000 to repair the docks.
The Ocracoke Civic & Business Association had requested $120,000 but received $100,000 to fund professional fireworks in 2018, paid advertising to market the island and support for Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree, the Fig Festival and End of Summer Celebration, other July 4 activities, support for the British Cemetery Ceremony and a paid tourism staff.
In a new project, Adam Burleson, Ocracoke School physical education teacher, asked for a grant to upgrade the school basketball court.
He is proposing it be resurfaced as a multi-use court on which students, residents and visitors also could play tennis, pickleball and volleyball. The board approved a grant of $16,200 for this project subject to it going through a nonprofit organization and that it be supplemented with a dollar-for-dollar match.
In addition to the grants listed above, the following other grants were awarded:
Ocracoke Friends of the Library, $3,040 to replace two computers, support the summer reading program and summer janitorial services.
Ocracoke Childcare, $500, for mandatory staff training support.
Ocracoke School Arts Week, $6,000
Ocracoke Health Center, $10,000 towards a feasibility study required for a proposed expansion.
Ocracoke Preservation Society, $11,000, for digital collection archive support
Ocracoke Community Center, $24,5000 toward annual expenses and repairs, and some toward refinishing the floors.
Each year, groups are required to submit detailed written requests, and last night they had the opportunity to present their requests in person and answer questions.
The Occupancy Tax Board makes recommendations on distributing funds collected from a three percent tax on island rentals and lodgings. All grants are subject to approval by the Hyde County commissioners.
In addition to Chestnut, the other Occupancy Tax Board members are Trudy Austin, Marlene Mathews, Stephanie O’Neal and David Styron.