The priority lane at the Hatteras Ferry. Photo: C. J. Farley

By Connie Leinbach

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While Legislators in Raleigh continue to vote on the $23.03 billion budget passed by the state Senate yesterday, the budget includes a kernel of good news for Ocracoke.

Included in the plan, scheduled for a final vote this week, is an item that would let vendors who hold Hatteras Inlet ferry priority passes to transfer the passes from one vehicle to another, rather than the current policy of having to buy them for each commercial vehicle they send to Ocracoke.

“This would have been a significant blow to vendors who have whole fleets of vehicles that are dispatched for deliveries and services to Ocracoke,” said Sean Death, owner of the Ocracoke Bar & Grille and proprietor of the Ocracoke gas station.

In the multiple lanes at the Hatteras ferry, one is reserved as a priority lane for residents and vendors to board the ferries first.

While last year’s budget appropriated annual monies to the N.C. Ferry Division for maintenance of the ferries and also allowed for the ferries to again be considered part of the highway system, a compromise included an annual charge of $150 for vendors to use the priority lanes at the Hatteras Ferry. That provision called for all vendors to purchase passes for each of their vehicles, which began in January. (See story here.)

Death said his fuel vendor has had to wait up to three hours in the general ferry lines.  Rather than see them raise their fuel prices to cover this cost, Death and his wife, Laurie, paid extra freight charges to the fuel companies for their employees’ time waiting.

With this revision, the cost of paying one $150 fee for any vehicle can be spread almost unnoticed to retail prices, Death said.

Death said state Sen. Bill Cook, who represents Ocracoke, made this “clarification” in the Senate’s budget version after receiving an email from Death about this unintended economic consequence for one of the poorest counties in the state.

“This would give vendors the excuse to raise prices,” Death said about the multiple passes.  “Cook and some other representatives immediately wanted to change it. They actually read my emails.”

Overall, the budget that would go into effect July 1 shows a 3 percent increase in state spending from the current fiscal year.

The two chambers plan to vote on the proposal by the end of this week and send it to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who in recent news reports blasted the plan for its increased spending.

“The budget manages to spend $130 million more than either of the chamber’s budgets, but it spends less on teacher pay than either budget,” Cooper said in a report by the Raleigh News & Observer. “That is a demonstration of priorities that are out of line.”

Republicans would have enough votes in both the House and Senate to override a Cooper veto.

In the spending plan, teachers would receive on average 3.3 percent pay increase next year, for a total average increase of 9.6 percent over two years.

State workers would see a $1,000 raise across the board, while retirees will receive a one percent cost of living increase.

North Carolina’s personal income tax rate would drop to 5.25 percent in 2019, while 95,000 North Carolinians would be added to the zero-tax bracket.

An additional $100 million in disaster relief assistance to victims of Hurricane Matthew is also provided, and $363 million would be added to the state’s rainy-day fund.

Of interest to Hyde County, the budget proposal also mandates the state Wildlife Resources Commission to make repairs to the Mattamuskeet Lodge roof and stabilize the tower by allowing more money to be drawn from a reserve account.

The budget also appropriates $15 million for dredging operations throughout the state and calls for a study of the annual state cost to operate and maintain the dredge Manteo.

It also directs the Ferry Division to develop a detailed life-cycle plan for the repair and replacement of terminal structures, including ramps and gantries and to include a cost-benefit analysis of repairing terminal structures versus replacing terminal structures.

Also, the budget would allocate $800,000 for the Governor’s School for the fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19. 

The Governor’s School is a five-and-a-half week summer program at Meredith College in Raleigh and Salem College in Winston-Salem for gifted high school students pursuing academic and artistic endeavors. The program was begun in 1963 by Gov. Terry Sanford and is recognized as the oldest program of its kind in the country and a model for other states.

Ocracoke students have attended this program–Dylan Sutton, 2017 class salutatorian, last year and Deanna Seitz in 2015.

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