Unwanted local legislation denounced by citizens, Dare Board

By on April 3, 2017

Some of the money in question went to multi-use paths. (Voice)

Local government leaders and citizens were emphatic Monday that they did not ask for nor do they want two disputed local bills filed in the past month by the area’s General Assembly delegation.

The Dare County Board of Commissioners meeting became a forum for denunciations of the bills before the board unanimously endorsed resolutions opposing them.

One bill would repeal the ban on the use of thin plastic bags by Outer Banks retailers and the other would re-examine the way occupancy tax revenues are distributed in Dare County.

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Both were introduced as local bills, which are traditionally requested by towns and counties before they are filed in Raleigh. But no local government officials asked for them.

While debate has centered mainly on the bag bill introduced March 7 by state Rep. Beverly Boswell (R-Dare), the occupancy tax legislation could have wider economic implications for the county and its towns.

“Local government and community stakeholders were not consulted, nor was this legislation requested, and this is a local bill affecting only Dare County,” said Susie Walters, the chairwoman of the Dare County Tourism Board and Nags Head’s mayor pro-tem.

Boswell’s bill calls for re-examining how the Tourism Board uses its 1 percent share of revenue from the 6 percent occupancy tax on visiting renters.

House Bill 531 notes that legislation passed in 1991 calls for money collected from 1 percent of the tax on hotel and motel rooms and vacation rentals and a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages to go into a fund administered by the Tourism Board.

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The original legislation designates 75 percent of those funds for administration and tourism promotion, while the remaining 25 percent would be “restricted and used for services or programs needed due to the impact of tourism on the county.”

Boswell contends that the money from the restricted fund has been misspent on grants for bike paths, fireworks, boardwalks and special events rather than to shore up local services such as public safety during tourist season.

But her proposal does not mention that Dare County county and its six municipalities already receive half of the revenue from the 6 percent tax to cover those costs and other budget items.

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“Last fiscal year, the county and towns received more than $13 million to address the negative impacts of tourism,” Walters told the board. “This tax is paid solely by our visitors and guests when they rent lodging in Dare County.”

The balance of the tax — 2 percent — is designated specifically for the county’s shoreline management fund and is used to pay for beach nourishment projects.

Boswell’s proposal contends that confusion and disagreement have surrounded how the restricted funds are to be used and says the Office of the State Auditor conducted a review of financial records and recommended the tourism board seek clarification on how the money can be used.

The same report noted that the law is not specific about services or programs needed due to tourism’s impact, but that the county had been spending its restricted funds within the guidelines of state law for the past 25 years.

Vice Chairman Wally Overman said Monday that commissioners addressed those concerns when they were first raised more than a year ago and decided they saw no need to change how the funds are distributed.

“Not even a year has passed from the discussion of the facts and the decisions made then and yet here we are,” Overman said. “The facts have not changed, and the decisions made to leave our occupancy tax formula intact are still valid in my opinion.”

Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said in a memo last week to Tourism Board members that the restricted fund has reinvested more than $9 million in the community.

The fund was also used to contribute $300,000 for an emergency dredging project of Oregon Inlet in January 2015, and a $1 million allocation has been set aside from the fund for future dredging in both Oregon and Hatteras inlets.

Restricted funds are used to help fund four Independence Day fireworks shows, improvements at the Soundside Events Site in Nags Head and for grants for green space/open space enhancements county-wide.

Use of the funds requires approval from the Board of Commissioners. Coincidentally, the board on Monday approved a request from Nettles to provide $10,000 grants each to the Avon Property Owners Association, Kill Devil Hills, Manteo and Nags Head to help pay for July 4 fireworks.

If the occupancy tax rules for Dare County are revisited, Walters said, they could be subject to a standardized formula that calls for two-thirds of the proceeds to go to tourism promotions and one-third to other tourism-related expenses.

That would send four percent of the money to the tourism board and the other two percent to distribute to the county and towns and for beach nourishment.

After the proposed repeal of the bag ban took more hits in public comments, Vice Chairman Wally Overman joined the unanimous opposition on the board, saying “this seems to me to have created an issue where none existed.”

In addition to Boswell’s bill, state Sen. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) added one paragraph on repealing the ban into a larger bill on environmental regulations.

The board approved resolutions opposing the plastic bag ban repeal, the bill addressing tourism board spending and legislation calling for partisan school board elections.

Nags Head commissioners will consider resolutions concerning the various bills on Wednesday.

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