Funding for Recreational Field on Ocracoke?

Jenny Scarborough

Occupancy Tax Board Chair Stella O'Neal paraphrased the Rolling Stones.

"Don't feel bad if you don't get everything you asked for," she said.  "We have a lot of requests this year."  Every spring, the occupancy tax board recommends how to spend approximately $360,000 in tax revenues from rental cottages, hotel rooms and camp sites on Ocracoke.

This year, Ocracoke organizations requested over $530,000.  Board chairs and non-profit directors requested funding for the Health Center, Fire Department, EMS, early childhood education, arts programs, recreational facilities, public restrooms, promotional materials, and start up funds for off-season events. 

"I call it the gathering of the Easter supplicants," quipped Scott Bradley, a volunteer and board member with several Ocracoke non-profits.

William Howard, a gazillionth generation Ocracoker, said he appreciates the hard work the board must do, and doesn't envy the decisions they have to make.   He expressed his frustration that service providers have to come out to "beg" for funds.  "I am astonished every year.  These all seem like county functions.  We're paying for things that we're already paying for with our tax dollars."

Occupancy tax board member Wayne Clark responded that unless Ocracokers willingly pay increased taxes, the county will remain under-funded.

Commissioner Darlene Styron said, "I totally understand the frustration," but that the county simply doesn't have the money.

The largest new request this year came from the Ocracoke Youth Center on behalf of a recreational field committee, which has been meeting and planning for the past year.  The committee asked for $50,000 to make monthly payments on a 5.8 acre parcel between Howard's Pub and Jackson Tract.

The seven lots comprise the "last undeveloped space with the least amount of environmental impact," said recreational field committee member Vince O'Neal.  The committee has negotiated a purchase price of $1.2 million.   Half of the $4000 monthly payments will go to reducing the principal on the owner financed property.

The remaining funds, totaling $125,000 per year, will come from grants and fund-raising, said committee member Bill Rich.  The members of the committee include business people, hotel owners, engineers, attorneys, and parents.

"The opportunity to do something like this on Ocracoke is rapidly dwindling," said Vince.  The last parcel the committee considered was sold.  Talks with NPS about using federal land for ball fields were not fruitful.  "They slammed the door shut,"  he said.  "This is one of the most important, far-reaching decisions this board has ever made."

Ernest Cutler, former Ocracoke School principal, had the insight to look for a field in the 1980s, said Vince.  Fields where Ocracokers traditionally played, like down base near the Silver Lake ferry terminal and behind Topless Oyster Restaurant, have since been developed.  The large, sand swept flats on south point where many a game of softball took place are now seasonally closed to protect endangered nesting birds.

The 42 Ocracoke boys and girls who are heading up to Hatteras next week to participate in the youth recreational baseball league have been practicing on Keith and Isabel McDermott's lawn for the past two years.  "They have no where else to play," said Vince.

"I hope you will rank it right behind the fire department and Health Center," said Vince.  "People who've moved here have the urge to spend on advertising.  This is not a time to panic," he said.  Purchasing a recreational field is "a great return for the money."

The committee envisions hosting off season tournaments, and putting in walking paths and nature trails that may tie into National Park land.  A youth center could possibly be added to the site in the future.  Environmental education programs, adult rec leagues and special events hosted at the site give it potential to be about "a lot more than just baseball," said Vince.  This is "all about a stronger Ocracoke village."

The acreage is "not in Ocracoke proper," and the committee anticipates it would have little impact on neighbors.  Four additional lots which are too low to be built upon could be purchased at low cost and are CAMA approved for parking, said Vince.

Negotiations with the current owners are well underway, said Bill.  They "likely will agree to owner finance at 2 to 4 percent," he said, and are offering the Ocracoke Youth Center four years of forgiveness over ten years.  That means the non-profit can pay less than its $175,000 obligation in some years if fund-raising falls shy.

By Friday, April 6 the property should be under contract, and the committee hopes to close in July, conditional upon funding, appraisals, and wetlands restrictions, said Bill.  "To me, it's the field of dreams.  This community will support it," he told the board.

The current owners want the reassurance of $50,000 each year in occupancy tax funds, which Bill said the Youth Center will request "throughout the life of the loan."

Occupancy Tax Board member Martha Garrish expressed her fear and reluctance to commit to $50,000 each year.  "It scares me that people hope and expect we can come up with this money.  We can't do that.  The county won't let us.  What happens if we can't?"  Hyde commissioners consider the recommendations of the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board, but have final authority over how the funds are dispersed.

Linda Scarborough, an Ocracoke resident since 1979 (and, it should be noted, this writer's mother), pointed out that the purchase of the Ocracoke Community Center was made with occupancy tax funds, and involved a long term commitment.

Ocracoke Youth Center board chair Bob Chestnut encouraged the board to "look at the history of the Youth Center.  Our goal is not to come ask for money from this board.  We have structures in place to raise some money ourselves."  The Youth Center runs Village Thrift, behind Ocracoke Coffee Co. as one of their fundraising initiatives.

Another significant request came from the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association, which asked for $84,000 to "attract and retain new visitors," explained Treasurer Carol Pahl.

OCBA is prepared to spend $30,000 of money it has saved on public restrooms in the village.  They asked for an additional $40,000 from the occupancy tax board.  "We want to make a more pleasant experience for our visitors," said Carol.

The restrooms recommended by planners are vault privies, similar to ones used by NPS at the lifeguard beach.  Constructed on the property of businesses willing to dedicate the space, they would replace and supplement the port-a-pots in the village.

The proposed toilets would have custom designed white clapboard exteriors and bead board interiors, to fit into the historic look of the village.  Each structure will conserve the rainwater runoff from its roof to be used for cleaning, and be lit by skylight.

The privies would be sealed concrete sunk into the ground, pumped twice a year, and are suitable for a coastal environment subject to storm surges, said Robin Payne, Director of Ocracoke Foundation, Inc.  They are "guaranteed for life" and are considered durable, "extreme toilets," she added.

OCBA requested $8000 for the July 4th celebrations, up from $6000 last year.  The additional $2000 is to implement "ideas to keep people in the village after the parade," said Carol.  A $10,000 request by OCBA, in the past granted by the tax board, pays for promotion, postage and print services of the Ocracoke village pamphlet. 

The final $26,000 requested by OCBA would design a cohesive marketing plan for Ocracoke.  Is advertising included in this $26,000, asked occupancy tax board member Wayne Clark.  No, said Robin, but you need to know where to advertise, how to partner with others, and wisely spend your advertising dollars.

Wayne encouraged each applying organization to look into other funding to decrease their dependency on occupancy tax money. 

Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department benefits from occupancy tax funds each year.  "Hi, again.  It's the same story," said OVFD Secretary Teresa O'Neal.  "You guys allow the fire department to grow and to maintain."  OVFD requested $80,000 for operational and maintenance costs.

The all-volunteer organization levies no fees on property owners, relies on donations and bingo, and operates with a "steady income of less than $20,000 a year," said Teresa.

OVFD has been "investigating options" for funding for years.  Asking the county commissioners to levy the additional .025 percent sales tax authorized by NC is "not our favorite choice," said Teresa.  Plus there is no guarantee it would go the the department, noted William Howard.

The approximately $60,000 raised each year at the annual Memorial Day Firemens Ball is invested for a planned fire station better suited to Ocracoke's current and future needs. 

The occupancy tax board has $300,000 in reserve funds earmarked for the new fire station.  $360,000 in undesignated money is also is in the occupancy tax fund balance, said Hyde finance officer Corrinne Gibbs.

Sanitary Board member Scott Bradley clarified that there are two ways to form a fire district.  One is to create a special tax district which encompasses the village of Ocracoke.  Despite popular support from both on and off-island property owners, the elected Sanitary Board rejected this proposal several years ago, because "once that tax district is created, county commissioners can add taxes at will," said Scott.

The other option is to place a proposed fire district on the ballot, which requires signatures from 35% of property owners (many of which are not Ocracoke residents).  The ballot initiative must then be approved by registered voters, and the county is mandated to add the fee to the tax rolls.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there and people throwing stones," said Wayne, who encouraged citizens to get informed and involved.  "This is an important thing.  We really need a new fire department."

In the past, almost 39% of occupancy tax revenues have been dedicated to the Ocracoke Health Center, said Wayne.

"It's the same as the past few years," said Director Cheryl Ballance, who requested $140,000.  "Most of what I request from you is all operations.  We can never make enough money to support the costs" of providing health care on Ocracoke, she said.

The Health Center also receives $149,000 of their $500,000 yearly budget from a state grant.  The rest comes from other grants, insurance, and patient revenues. 

A basic visit to the clinic costs $90.  "Keeping costs down is a board decision," said Cheryl.  No one is turned down due to an inability to pay.  The board is considering a slight increase in the cost of office visits.

There are about 4000 patient visits each year to Ocracoke Health Center.  About 30% qualify for a state program that offers the uninsured a $10 - $20 co-pay if they document that their income is below a certain level.  The Health Center can recover up to $50 of their $90 fee from NC for serving these patients.  The rest is written off.

Cheryl said before occupancy tax funds became available, health care providers on Ocracoke were not compensated for their after hours and on call duties, leading to high turnover.  While health professionals on Ocracoke earn significantly less than national averages, "We have two very satisfied providers right now," said Cheryl.  

A run-down of other requests to the occupancy tax board will appear Thursday 4/5 or Friday 4/6 in Ocracoke Current.  The board's decisions for funding will also be printed as soon as we have them.

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