County Manager Report

Jenny Scarborough

Hyde's 2013-2014 fiscal year began at the beginning of July.

"The budget process was fun. We got through it without any scratches," said County Manager Bill Rich.

Rich proposed a balanced budget after negotiating with the heads of county departments. "They were happy, within reason," said Rich, citing the example of the Sheriff's Department, which got two new patrol cars instead of the requested four. "Last year they got none," said Rich.

A few questions about the budget were raised by former Commissioners Sharon Spencer and Darlene Styron, said Rich. They had concerns about the option to borrow $400,000 from the general fund. Rich emphasized that the $400,000 will only be used if he is unable to "find money" from other sources, and that he plans to raise the amount maintained in the general fund from 3.5 to 4 million US dollars in the next year.

Where and how do you "find money"? This reporter was eager to know.

By pursuing FEMA money to reimburse Hyde for 4.5 million the county spent in the wake of Hurricane Irene; by politely and persistently following up with businesses and individuals who owe unpaid property tax; and through a larger Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) from the federal government than was anticipated, explained Rich.

Let's talk about Payments in Lieu of Taxes. 40% of the land in Hyde County is held in the public trust, as part of the National Park, Wildlife Refuges, or by conservation groups. Unlike your home and mine, that land is not on the tax rolls. Property owners are billed based on what an assessor determines their property is worth.

In 2012, owners of private property in Hyde collectively paid 6.5 million in ad valorem (also known as property) taxes for their 60% of Hyde County land. The government decides what its contribution should be.

There is no formula for this payment, said Rich. PILOT amounts received by Hyde widely vary. The budget anticipated the lowest recent PILOT made, of $65,000, in 2009. When number crunchers at federal agencies recently decided $211,000 was a fair contribution from them, Commissioners were able to disperse the additional funds.

"Last week we gave the schools $48,000 over and above their budget," said Rich.

Three appeals to FEMA, which will total 1.5 million, are pending.

County employees also found $110,000, by following up on an unpaid real estate tax payment. One good letter to the right party was all it took, said Rich. A simple phone call brought in several back payments due to the county revolving loan fund.

Although after 5 months on the job, "the honeymoon period is over," the job remains "totally exciting, challenging, and more rewarding" than anticipated, said Rich, a former self-employed real estate developer, native of Hyde, and Ocracoke resident. He works from Ocracoke on Fridays, and was sipping a homemade smoothie, dressed in a OVFD Firemen's Ball T-shirt and shorts the day I stopped by the Community Center office. For the office in Swan Quarter, he usually wears a collar, but no tie.

Emotions ran high at two meetings Rich attended last week. At the Monday Commissioner's meeting, Hyde resident Kelly Pellegrino passionately asked the county to allot more funds for animal control, especially for abused and neglected animals. That fund was cut last year from $70,000 to $15,000, and the county now responds only to calls about vicious and rabid animals, the minimum prescribed by law.

Pellegrino has taken responsibility for something the county used to do, said Rich. WITN News covered that story.

Thursday's planning board meeting about the Ocracoke Development Ordinance was also spirited. The most recent incarnation of the planning board was convened two years ago, in part to determine how to regulate "pop-up" businesses that operate from kiosks, carts and food trucks.

A larger than usual number of residents attended the meeting. Many had concerns about the appearance of new food trucks. Some of the discussion was about "aesthetics rather than code," said Rich. "We can't do anything about the way it looks."

The proliferation of mobile businesses means that county planners, building code enforcement officer Jerry Hardison, and Rich are working on a proposed ordinance requiring all businesses operating in Hyde to have a vendor's permit. Hyde is currently the only NC county that does not do so.

The permit would ensure all businesses are paying sales tax, makes it easier to guarantee they are properly permitted by health and building codes, and would provide a record of all commerce in Hyde. "We will be introducing it to the Commissioners," said Rich.

Rich developed a list of 25 specific goals for the next year that he thinks are achievable, and the Commissioners adopted these "expectations and commitments" along with the 2013-2014 budget. "I'm all about economic development. That's my passion," he said.

We'll take them a few at a time, not all at once, and in no particular order, so as not to tax our readers with too much, erm, reading. Also, to ensure you come back for more thrills as Ocracoke Current continues to report on the potential evolution of Hyde County, population 5,800.

#1: "Raise Hyde County's General Fund Balance to a minimum of four million dollars ($4,000,000.00) by June 30, 2014."

To achieve goal #1, Rich is busy finding money, as described above.

#20: "Maintain community chipping and mulch operations on Ocracoke."

That's already checked off the list.

After hearing from the Ocracoke community that chipping was much appreciated, Commissioners arranged to have a mobile chipper available. To turn your trees and brush into fragrant woody shards (sadly, the chipper cannot create a fragrant, oaky chard), call the convenience site, and the equipment will come to you on a Wednesday.

"They will blow it into your yard or into the truck," said Rich. Ooh, choices! The mulch mound at the convenience site is available to everyone. "We'll make this place more beautiful with mulch," added Rich, who confessed his landscaper wife, Jennifer, had some influence in getting this done sooner rather than later.

#18: "Improve storm water run-off on the streets of Ocracoke."

"I've always wanted to get rid of that water in front of Sarah's shop," said Rich, referring to the deep and vast puddle that forms in the road between Blackbeard's Lodge, Bella Fiore, and Secret Garden Gallery. Cars and cyclists passing through after a drenching rain create a wake, and there are jarring, hidden potholes along the edges. "It's a hazard," said Rich.

Diverting the water to county owned property behind the Flying Melon is one option, said Rich, who recognizes that addressing drainage issues on island roads is not a comprehensive water quality plan. Local mosquito control technician Beaver Tillett, who knows all the low spots on the island and is attentive to how water flows, is putting his head together with a marsh scientist from the mainland in hopes of rectifying a few of the hot spots prone to storm water flooding.

Bringing us to #4: "Sell and/or lease those surplus properties owned by Hyde county that are FEMA acquired or unused."

The property behind the Flying Melon which could be potential drainage is one of these "surplus properties," owned by the county, and like federal and state lands, not on the tax rolls. In 2012, Commissioners did not act on an offer, from the Flying Melon, to purchase the property and return it to private ownership.

Melon owner Michael Schramel and Rich both characterized that inaction as "foot dragging."

The county owns a number of former home sites on the mainland that were deemed too low for rebuilding, by FEMA, after Hurricane Irene. The flooded residents had a choice: accept the appraised value of your home and land and relocate, or stay on your property and receive no governmental support. The homes of those who left were razed.

Editorial aside: Echos of Katrina?

The county now bears responsibility for these vacant lots on which building is not an option. Gardens and field are allowed. The county currently pays to mow these properties, and Rich hopes to find a market so they may become a benefit, rather than a burden, to Hyde taxpayers.

Historical perspective on the geography of our county? Even the Dutch who settled Hyde moved further inland than Swan Quarter.

Speaking of the Dutch, there is a dike around Swan Quarter. After 15 years, it requires repairs that will cost a big chunk of the annual Hyde budget of 12 million, which a future budget will have to address.

#19: "Establish a Mooring Field on Silver Lake with the help of Jane Hodges."

Hodges is a county development officer, which means she knows how to access grant funds, among other things. She and Rich met with Ocracoke residents and sailors – dare I say yachtsmen? – Tony McGowan, Captain Rob Temple and Jack Whitehead to discuss developing a mooring field in Silver Lake. Many municipalities attract transient boaters with mooring balls, which offer reliable anchorage for a reasonable fee. 

"The initial meeting was exciting," said Rich. The group discussed a possible 12 to 20 ball mooring field on the back third of the harbor, near the Jolly Roger Restaurant and away from the ferry channel. The option to drop a hook and anchor independently in Silver Lake would remain. Boaters would have access to a public dinghy dock, likely at the Community Square docks, which dovetails with plans Ocracoke Foundation Inc. has in place to encourage and welcome more traffic from private vessels.

Grant funds are available to engineer and establish a mooring field. A dockmaster of some sort would have to be hired, and revenues from the moorings will probably not cover all the associated costs. Even though "the county will probably subsidize the field, it will make money for Ocracoke," said Rich.

The handful of non-sailing, Marathon, Florida-esque boats that house seasonal residents "would have to become responsible," said Rich. When the owners and tenants leave for the winter, these boats can drag anchor and beat against someone's dock, or worse, boat. A mooring field protects all property owners, and would give everyone increased peace of mind, said Rich.


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