Spending $350K on Ocracoke

Jenny Scarborough

Decisions to fund ten local organizations were quickly made by the Occupancy Tax board.

Six requests--from Ocracoke Alive!, Ocracoke Preservation Society, WOVV, Ocracoke School Art Week, Hyde County, and OCBA fireworks--were recommended to be fully funded. Four requests, from Ocracoke Community Park, Ocracoke Fire Protection Association, the Health Center, and Methodist Church were recommended for partial funding. Requests by OCBA, the Community Center Board, the Friends of the Library, and Ocracoke Child Care were tabled pending more information. 

About 35 island residents – all white, all but two over the age of 40 – attended the meeting. Most served on non-profit boards and were there to make requests. Two former Hyde Commissioners were present, as was presumed Commissioner elect Tom Pahl. "I'm amazed at how much stuff this community does," said Pahl. 

The Occupancy Tax is a 3% tax on lodging, and generates about $350,000 each year. The guiding legislation says it can be used for any public purpose on Ocracoke. The board is chaired by Frank Brown. Trudy Austin has served for 12 years, and is the senior board member. Clayton Gaskill and David Styron also serve. Member Marlene Matthews is off the island, awaiting the birth of a grandchild in southern California. The board makes recommendations to Hyde Commissioners, who have final approval of the administration of OT revenues. The board holds $350,000 in reserve each year, just in case: when access to the island is compromised, lodging revenues suffer, and a number of island institutions depend on this fund.

Here we go! 

The Methodist Church needs $2000 for parking lot repair and maintenance. The lot is used by pedestrians accessing Howard Street, customers at nearby businesses, and the school, and "in effect has become a public parking lot," said Gary Davis. Ocracoke Alive! hosts programming across the street at Deepwater Theater, which has limited parking. They have pledged $500 to the church parking lot. The school is also being asked to contribute. Is there a legal issue with a government fund contributing to a faith based organization? asked one board member. If that is the case, the Occupancy Tax money could be granted to Ocracoke Alive! with the intention of allocation for the church parking lot, it was suggested. $1000 was unanimously approved. Legal issues can be determined by the county before the Board of Commission is called to a vote.

Parking is an issue that grows as Ocracoke's resident and visitor population grows. A long term solution has never been proposed.

Nancy Leach followed Gary's lead, keeping her request for $3000 for Arts Week at Ocracoke School succinct, and the pace of the meeting lively. The money will help with artist stipends, said Nancy, who wondered aloud if she needed to say anything else. Line item budgets arrive in OT board members' hands a few weeks before the meeting. "That looks really good. Worthy," responded Frank, who added, "We'll be done by eight o'clock." Laughter ensued. 

Arts Week happens each March. It's an "awesome program," noted Trudy after the request portion of the meeting, when the board members gathered their chairs around a table and began making decisions. The OT is also not the sole source of Arts Week funding, which is something the board looks for, observed Trudy. Boom. Arts Week 2017 is on.

Boom. So are fireworks. Fireworks cost "about the same as before," said Darlene Styron. Fireworks have not been seen on Ocracoke since a 2009 explosion killed four members of the pyrotechnics crew setting up on the morning of July 4. A former commissioner, Darlene was one of three people (including me) not on the board who stayed to hear and add their voice to the discussions of appropriate ways to appropriate OT funds. In the past, $20,000 was invested. This year's request of $23,800 includes additional insurance fees for the 2017 Independence Day celebration.

When OCBA met in December, 2015, "community support for fireworks was overwhelming," said Frank. There have only been two vocal people in the community who don't support fireworks, said one board member as the short discussion began. I – adjunct reporter, citizen – put myself out there as a hesitant third name, and was glanced at askance by everyone in the room. Never mind, patterns of light in the sky are exhilarating. Let us exalt. Fireworks will burst over Pamlico Sound on the evening of July 3, 2016, turning the holiday into a two day event, observed someone at the table. The motion was seconded and unanimously approved to fund fireworks again in 2017. Hyde County will hold the permits. OCBA will host.

There was little controversy at the table, or the general meeting. OCBA's request for $50,000 for marketing Ocracoke caused the most consternation. "What is the goal of the ad campaign?" board members asked Connie Leinbach, who presented for OCBA. The committee hasn't "figured that out yet," said Connie, although they want to focus mostly on spring and fall, and extending the length of time shoulder season visitors stay. The island is at 25% occupancy in April, and at 40% occupancy during May and September. About 300 runners are coming in late April for the 5K/10K and marathon, commented Greg Honeycutt. Events work, they drive things, he said. 

There seems to be "no plan going forward for advertising and marketing," said Frank to his fellow board members, who noted that other initiatives by the tourism and marketing board of OCBA were good. They have successfully encouraged media coverage of the island in magazines like Coastal Living. "I am not in favor of handing them $50,000," he said, noting that the intent was too unclear. Trudy Austin suggested the advertising request have more specific context and demonstrable benefit. 

The discussion of funding OCBA's request for $120,000 (in addition to the $23,800 for fireworks, which was submitted separately) was tabled. 

The Fig Festival, the Pirate Jamboree, the British Cemetery Ceremony and the activities on July 4 all work well, agreed the board. Hosts of those OCBA sponsored events should, it appears to me, anticipate full funding for their requests. Hotels and rental houses were full during the 2015 Pirate Jamboree, said organizer Chip Stevens. In 2016, they will bring additional entertainment without asking for additional OT funds, he said. What would a pirate do with $20,000? Host a fall festival? Aye!

Ocracoke Child Care's request for $15,500 was tabled. $11,000 would allow them to pay off the remaining debt on the building; a $3,000 defibrillator in an outside box would be accessible to anyone in crisis 24/7 and allow the center to apply for public park grants. This reporter failed to note what the additional $1,500 would fund. Ask Amy Srail Johnson, the board chair: she'll know. The center closed to restructure last year, and will now be working on a seasonal model, which allows them to close and re-open without having to re-apply for state licenses.

An additional teacher is expected to start any day now, said Director DeAnna Locke, and that will allow the center's current enrollment of eleven to grow. The center has passed inspections ("with flying colors" said DeAnna) and retained its five star rating, which comes with "a drastic increase in subsidy" said Amy. One subsidy was lost. The per child monthly fee rose by $150/month when Smart Start subsidies were switched to Ocracoke School. There was no way of determining or documenting, prior to a February 29 deadline, how enrollment numbers would look, said Amy, when asked to explain why that took place. Her board has been seeking to place a representative on the Beaufort-Hyde board responsible for funding decisions for three years, with no success. 

Is OCC an institution that generates revenue for the future? David Styron asked, in the meeting after the meeting. The OT board provided $43,000 of funding for OCC last year. The organization now has $30,000 in the bank. "They stayed alive and didn't spend money on things that didn't happen" in the past year, noted Frank.

Trudy said she had heard from some parents that the $1000 monthly fee meant they were choosing to stay home rather than work a restaurant job and enroll their children in day care. As a long time board member, "This is one organization that we have rooted for and pulled for," she said. 

The OT Board will ask for more information from the OCC Board about 2016-2017 financial projections.

Ocracoke Fire Protection Association historically presents near the end of the meeting. People requesting the shortest stacks of money go first. The Volunteer Fire Department celebrated its 50th this year.

"The folks of 1966 would be amazed at what the fire department has turned into. They would be amazed at what Ocracoke has turned into," said Teresa O'Neal. 

OFPA requested a quenching $135,000. $50,000 will help them make the final loan payment on the (still new!) firehouse, paying off a $1.2 million building "in record time," said Teresa. $35,000 will help them maintain and replace expensive specialized equipment. $50,000 more would go into a new truck fund. 

"You've got quite a bit of cash," Frank said. 

Fundraising is unpredictable, said Teresa. 

The OFPA has about $375,000 in cash reserves. The 2016/2017 OFPA budget presented to the OCC board anticipates $83,000 in fund raising. The success of the annual Fireman's Ball each May is vital. Let's fund at last year's level, suggested a board member. Let's help them get that building paid off, then we can talk about other things, said another. $80,000 it was. 

David Tweedie asked for $13,500 for Ocracoke Alive! $6000 will help support the Ocrafolk Festival. $4000 will contribute to a new off- season event: mark your calendar for November 12, when the school and community center will host the first Latino de Ocracoke festival. The meetings are mostly in Spanish, with pauses to keep me informed, David told me, grinning, during the chair stacking portion of the evening (and if you don't know what that means, you've never been to a public meeting in a small town.) The OT Board was enthusiastic. If they do as good a job with the Latin festival as they do with the Ocrafolk Festival, positive things will happen, it was said, and agreed.

The additional $3500 requested will assist Ocracoke Alive! with stage two of their curriculum development. They are designing educational programs in line with NC Common Core standards that will attract schools and teachers. Ocracoke Alive! will host one-day programs on the skipjack Wilma Lee in the fall of 2016, with the intention of expanding to overnight programs in 2017, It could "turn into a big thing," said David Styron.

The curriculum already has "support from heavy hitters" in the funding world, said Clayton Gaskill. Sold! for $13,500.

Ocracoke Community Radio's request for $11,500 was also unanimously supported, with Clayton, an engineer employed by WOVV, recusing himself from the decision. Unanticipated specifications of the Americans for Disabilities Act means an exterior elevator, rather than a chair lift, will complete the renovations at the new WOVV studio in the former fire hall. That, and costs associated with an emergency generator, will cost $11,500. "We don't expect to come back anytime soon" (to request more OT funds) said Tommy Hutcherson. WOVV has arranged ten years free lease in their new space, is programming to include more Ocracoke School students, is popular with underwriters, and has robust fundraisers. 

Cheryl Ballance asked for $9500 to replace flooring in the former EMS building. Pharmacy and dental services will arrive on Ocracoke now that the clinic is a Federally Qualified Health Center, and the building will help serve that purpose. In the recent past, the Health Center habitually requested and received in excess of $130,000 of OT funds in order to keep its facility open and provide after-hour care. Federal funding has changed the way OHC does business, but assures us an island clinic. Last year was a turning point for the Health Center, said a board member. $5000 seems fair, proposed one, seconded another, and it was unanimous, again. 

The Ocracoke Preservation Society's proposal was recommended to be fully funded: $15,000 to continue building their searchable digital archive powered by museum quality software. "Right now we have a lot of momentum going," said Philip Howard. "History is one of the things Ocracoke can promote. Visitors should know we value our history," he said. 

OPS is looking ahead to the 2018 anniversary of Blackbeard's final battle, said Ruth Toth. The November 22 tricentennial coincides with Thanksgiving. Timing didn't mesh with the Pirate Jamboree, held in late October, and OPS hopes for $1000 to explore its own commemorative occasion. Nine members of the British Royal Navy were killed during battle in what was then their sovereign waters. OPS discovered that the Royal Navy hosts their own ceremony to honor those lives lost, and plans to invite them here. The Royal Navy on Ocracoke. Sailors in uniform. I am not opposed. Nor is the OT board. $1000.

On Sunday, there were 84 people between the ages of six and sixty recreating at the ball field, said Vince O'Neal. The OT board committed to supporting the Community Park in 2013, and will contribute $48,000 each year to cover monthly payments for the life of the loan. The park board focuses on fundraising for $100,000 balloon payments. Pledges start to go down, said Bob Chestnut. "In three years we'll be running into trouble." Village Thrift has moved and is larger. Additional income should follow.

There is also potential to increase the income from concessions, said Bob Toth. They've netted about $600 from two games at this time of year, in a food service space that Bob said is slightly cramped and could be improved upon. A supplemental request for $25,000 for a fully equipped mobile food unit was not approved by the OT board. It's a good idea but not this year, said a member. 

$10,000 of OT funds will pay to lobby against ferry tolls. Discussion? No. Approved.

Still up for discussion is the Community Center board request, for $34,650. The Community Center was purchased with OT funds and is owned by the county. It is freely used for government purposes and reasonably leased for other uses. $18,250 would cover the operating budget of the Community Center. $12,200 would allow the floors to be both refinished and finished in spots, said Bob Toth, who is retired and joining boards! The rest of the request would allow them to purchase custom built movable cabinetry, improve the men's bathroom and storage area, and landscape with flood resistance plants. 

The OT board needs to see a revenue report from the Community Center board, and tabled the decision. The OT board generally does not like to support operating budgets, said Trudy. The floor looks okay, said someone. We all looked at the floor. 

"You can still cut a rug out here," said John Simpson. 

Flooring. Furniture. Friends of the Library appeared in the form of Scott Bradley, who requested $1855 for the summer reading program and twelve weeks of janitorial services at $45/week. The OT board has consistently funded this request, and seems poised to do so again. Friends of the Library also asked for $3500 for new furniture for the computer room, which sees frequent use by visitors, said Scott. Whether they will receive it remains a mystery.

The OT board will post their next, likely final, decision-making meeting place and time. They have yet to decide about $138,200 of the fund. $175,505 in requests are pending.


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