Sundae Horn
Gimme Some Money

Occupancy Tax Board met for 4 hours; heard requests; did not vote on anything.

What a meeting marathon! The annual funding request meeting of the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board was, as always, long. It was also riveting. (No sarcasm. I love the OTB meetings.)

The OTB is comprised of Bob Chestnut (chair), Trudy Austin, Nancy Leach, Byron Miller, and Stephanie O'Neal. Also present at the meeting were Ocracoke's county commissioner, Tom Pahl, and Hyde County manager Bill Rich.

The question the board asks itself is: How do we want to spend $448,000 over the next fiscal year? (More specifically, they are asking how they want to recommend the Hyde County Board of Commissioners spend the money. The OTB is an advisory board and the BOC has the final vote. They almost always vote to implement the OTB's suggestions.)

Then the OTB invites Ocracoke non-profits and other community entities to make requests and justify why they think they need the money at a public presentation (tonight's meeting). And then after a little bathroom break, the OTB continues meeting to deliberate and discuss and vote on appropriations up to $450,000.

Tonight's meeting buried the lede, though, with the most interesting information coming after all the organizations had plead their cases. According to Hyde County finance officer Corrinne Gibbs, the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax fund balance is $736,000 and will get even bigger before the end of the fiscal year on June 30th. Ideally, the OTB would keep about $350,000 in reserve for emergencies or catastrophes. At their regular monthly meeting on April 2nd, the BOC voted to ask the OTB to suggest ways to spend about $400,000 of that reserve on tourism-related expenditures. (That's in addition to the $448,000 the OTB was planning to spend!) "It's not best practice to have such a big preserve," Corrinne told the OTB. "You're not in the business of making money." Keep this extra wad of cash in the back of your mind – we'll come back to it later. 

Fourteen organizations made funding requests. As per tradition, the board went from smallest request to largest. 

Ocracoke Friends of the Library asked for $2815 for summer janitorial services, the Summer Reading Program (including music lessons with Lou Castro for the Libraries Rock! theme), and painting two rooms in the library.

Ocracoke School Arts Week asked for $6000 to pay the stipends for the eight artists who teach at Arts Week each spring. Previous funding sources from OCBA and PTA have fallen through, so the school is asking for a larger amount this year from OTB. Supplies and other expenses for Arts Week are provided by Ocracoke Alive. The school has applied for a grant for $1868 from the N.C. Arts Council, but won't know until the end of July is they will receive that money. If so, they would need that much less from OTB.

The newly-formed Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild requested $10,050 for their first annual Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival on April 21st. All food concessions from the Waterfowl Festival will benefit Ocracoke School PTA. 

Ocracoke Health Center needs to replace their leaky, 20-year old roof to the tune of $12,132.50. Bob questioned their financial statement. "Did you really lose $100,000 this year?" he asked.

"This has been a losing operation since 1987," replied Cheryl Ballance, the health center's director. "We serve uninsured patients and low-income patients on a sliding fee scale," she explained, adding that the center has looked for other funding for their building maintenance needs. "The feds are posting any capital grants right now," she said. "At least we own the building and there's no mortgage. That helps."

Justin LeBlanc spoke up to say that the health center board hired a firm to do a feasibility study about building a new health care facility for OHC. It should come as no surprise that the feasibility was nil. "We have a third party evaluation telling us that we can't afford a new building," Justin said. Better patch up the old one!

WOVV is Ocracoke's hometown radio station. They didn't ask for any OT money last year, but they made up for it this year with a total request of $20,535. Located in the old fire hall on the Back Road, which is actually on school property, the station shares the space with the school shop class and a school office. WOVV's agreement with the school board requires that the radio station take care of the building. It needs a new HVAC system ($10,000). WOVV also requested reimbursement for $4000 they had to pay to replace the antenna after Hurricane Matthew, $2500 to pay the electrician who repaired their generator during the power outage, $1100 for new music software to play all your favorite tunes, and $3000 in cost overruns from retrofitting the building. 

Ocracoke Alive requested $29,000 to benefit three projects: 1. Ocrafolk Festival ($12,000 for lodging for performers; $8000 for 1/2 of the performer fees); 2. Latino Festival ($7000); 3. Deepwater Theater repairs ($2000). OA executive director Dave Tweedie explained that this year the Ocrafolk Festival will be a ticketed event. It will still be free for folks to wander the grounds to visit artisan booths or food concessions, but prime seating by the stages will be wristband-only spots. Dave estimates that at least 4000 people attend the Ocrafolk Festival each year. The Latino Fesitval is growing – last year attendance was between 800-1000. The festival was able to donate $2600 to Ocracoke School. Deepwater Theater needs some maintenance – Dave managed to drum up volunteers for the labor and to find most of the lumber at a discount. The $2000 will buy two exterior doors and more supplies for the fixer-upper. 

Speaking as an Ocracoke Alive board member, Tom Pahl noted that Ocracoke Alive intends for its events to be self-funding, and for the most part it is. "We're asking for a boost, not for [the occupancy tax board] to fund the entire program," he said. 

The Ocracoke Community Center board requested $19,000 for operating costs for the building and $23,000 to get the center re-sided with cedar shakes. (Full disclosure: I'm on the Community Center board and made the request on its behalf.) Why cedar shakes? They look nice. 

Hyde County asked for another $35,000 for trams. Oh, the trams! it was such a big deal last year and now some of the details have changed. That needs its own story.... And the county also wants $10,000 for the lobbying firm they hire every year. 

Lee Leidy, the Northeeast director of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust was joined by Greg Honeycutt as they requested $50,000 of seed money for walking trails on their property that adjoins the Ocracoke Community Park on one side and NPS property at Loopshack Hill on the other. The NCCLT has planned 1170 feet of ADA-compliant walkways through the preserve, complete with benches and interpretive signage. They plan to come back and ask for the same amount next year, while also requesting funds from the Ocracoke Tourism Development Authority. 

The Ocracoke Foundation owns the Community Square and needs $34,500 to replace and repair the Community Store docks. (They were granted this money last year, but haven't used it.) They also need $50,000 to stabilize some of the historic buildings at the Square and to help finish the parking lot project they are smack in the middle of. The Foundation's plan is that once the Square is paid for, the rental income from the retail shops will go into a community fund, which would grant around $50,000 a year. 

Ocracoke Preservation Society has four projects that need grants. First, their ongoing digital archiving of all the photos, documents, and items (35 years of stuff) at the museum – they asked for $16,000 to fund that project for another year, most of which will pay the person who'll do the scanning and archiving. OPS hasn't spent any of the money granted for this project in the current fiscal year due to personnel issues. The Fig Festival (August 17th-18th) has moved under the auspices of OPS this year and is requesting the same $11,000 budget. Ruth Toth, a member of the OPS Executive committee has been working for three years on a project to commemorate the 300th Anniversary of Lt. Robert Maynard's courageous win at the Battle of Ocracoke. Ruth is planning four days of events during Thanksgiving week – the 300th anniversary is November 22nd, also Thanksgiving Day – and has invited the British sailors who celebrate Blackbeard's defeat each year. She needs $18,000 for this once in a lifetime opportunity to host the crew of the H.M.S. Ranger here on Ocracoke. OPS also requested $20,000 for help with the Island Inn project (the TDA will also kick in $20,000).

Ocracoke Youth Center/Ocracoke Community Park requested their annual grant of $48,000 to pay the mortgage on the Community Park property. They also asked for $11,500 to upgrade their concessions area and offerings, and $9700 for storage units. 

Ocracoke Civic & Business Association made the second biggest request of the evening with a total of $112,717. (Note: OCBA is also getting $251,000 from the TDA board.) As OCBA vice president Justin LeBlanc explained, "The bulk ($98,000) is to support events such as the 4th of July, the Pirate Jamboree, the British Cemetery ceremony, and some is for one-time expenses."

To spruce up the 4th of July holiday, OCBA is hiring parade performers such as stilt-walkers, and hosting a glow-light laser show party at the Community Park. The party will cost $5000. A request for fireworks and other 4th of July events is also included in the $112,717.

The Pirate Jamboree is gearing up for a big year with the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard's demise. This year's event will span four days and have more pirates invading our small island. Bob noted that the request for the Pirate Jamboree ($38,000) is a 43% increase over their request last year. "We want it to be the best we can do," said Jamboree hype man Chip Stevens. 

OCBA also asked for $5000 for office equipment. 

Questions ensued. The newly-formed TDA levies an additional 2% occupancy tax and allocates it separately from the OTB. By statute, 2/3 of the TDA's money must go to marketing and promotion. The other 1/3 can support any tourism-related expenditure. (The OTB can allocate funds for "any public purpose.") In an average Ocracoke year, the TDA will collect $300,000 and spend $200,000 on promoting the island. Of that estimated $300,000, the TDA has committed on granting $251,000 of it to OCBA for 2018-19, $20,000 of it to OPS for the Island Inn project, and $15,000 on their own administrative costs. That leaves a surplus of $14,000. 

Bob questioned why OCBA didn't include their Walking Map in the tourism promotion request from the TDA. Martha Garrish, who sits on both the OCBA and TDA boards, volunteered an answer. "We wouldn't have had enough extra money for the walking map. We don't have a lot of excess money," she said. "Yes," Bob answered. "Because you already spent it."

The $251,000 that OCBA will get from the TDA breaks down like this: $130,000 for paying a marketing firm (Element, based in Asheville), $100,000 for salaries for 1.5 positions, and $27,600 for administrative expenses. (Yes, that adds up to more than $251,000, but that's the budget they submitted. They want to use $6500 of OTB funds to add to this request.)

In addition, OCBA will receive $60,000 before June 30th, 2018, while we're still in the current fiscal year. This is in addition to the $120,000 granted to OCBA by the OTB for 2017-18. Of that, $50,000 was spent on branding and marketing. 

But enough about OCBA and the TDA! We'll get back to them in Part Two!

Ocracoke Fire Protection Association/Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department asked for $160,000. They need to set aside $100,000 of that for their new truck fund; the balance will pay for repairs and maintenance. The fire department's annual expenses top $150,000 – most of that comes from donations and fundraisers. Hyde County provides only $27,000 each year. OVFD has half a million in the bank, but they are hoping for a new truck, which will cost the whole enchilada (if not more) and they don't want to spend all their savings. 

Shortly after the OVFD request was made, Bob called for a break, but not before noting that the total requests they'd heard came to $670,213. Simple math: $670,213 > $448,000. Somebody's not going to get what they want.

Three of us party animals stayed on for the second half of the meeting, which lasted until 11pm. I gave away the ending in the first sentence: there was a lot of talk, but no firm action. Yet. 

Whew! Time for a nap! It's 4am and I'm going to rest for a bit and then get up and write Part Two: Deliberations, Decisions, and Disappointments. Stay tuned!

Correction: the original article stated that the 1/3 of TDA money could be spent on any public purpose, but in fact the spending has to be for "tourism-related expenditures."