Before local communities can tap funds recently designated to offset the cost of inlet dredging, authorities must agree how the money can be used.
The law, fresh from the 2014 short session, allocates previously untapped room occupancy tax (ROT) collected in unincorporated areas of the county for both tourism promotion and tourism-related activities.
The New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, tasked with oversight of the money, will consider a memorandum of understanding Aug. 27. If approved, the memorandum creates a legal agreement that funds dedicated to tourism-related activities will be used for inlet maintenance.
Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair said the guidelines need to be tweaked to ensure all inlets in New Hanover County have equal access to the funds.
“Since these are all county funds, it was my thought that in the language of the memo of understanding, by definition, it ought to include all inlets whether they need money or not,” Blair said during an Aug. 19 phone interview.
Blair said the board of aldermen and other town leaders share his concerns about fair use of the funds, and unless the concerns are addressed, he will not support the agreement on Aug. 27.
Access to the funds is limited, granting eligibility only to inlet dredging projects that qualify for state funds established in a 2013 law. Wrightsville Beach Mayor Pro Tem Darryl Mills said that stipulation leaves only Carolina Beach Inlet as an immediate beneficiary.
“If I’m not mistaken, the only inlet that meets that criteria is Carolina Beach Inlet. So while they give with one hand, they take away with the other,” Mills said during an Aug. 18 phone interview.
Masons Inlet does not qualify for the state funds under the current arrangement, in which property owners on Figure Eight Island and the north end of Wrightsville Beach shoulder the cost of maintenance following its 2002 relocation.
Masonboro Inlet is also excluded in the agreement because it is a federally maintained inlet. Mills said it makes sense to include it in anticipation of a future change in federal support.
“I don’t think you should eliminate Masonboro Inlet because there may come a time when it needs some help,” Mills said.
Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens, who echoed concerns that the agreement does not include all the county’s inlets, said no restriction or limit to how much one project can claim is another problem.
“There needs to be some kind of formula, an equity formula, in my opinion, so not all funding is going to one inlet,” Owens said during an Aug. 18 phone interview.
The fund is starting with a little more than $1 million, but will only draw approximately $50,000 per year. Owens said the local share of $400,000 needed to maintain Carolina Beach Inlet could quickly drain the fund.
Blair stressed the town’s concerns about the agreed use of the funds are not meant to divert financial assistance needed to maintain Carolina Beach Inlet.
“We’re not trying to take away from Carolina Beach. We’re just trying to make sure that the way it gets done is equitable to all inlets,” Blair said. “It just looks like we’re lending a helping hand here in a very rushed manner and I’m not sure that’s a great effort.”
Blair said the timeline to enact guidelines seems rushed, adding that he would support slowing down to take a more comprehensive view.
“Everyone’s moving mighty quick without thinking completely long-term. It looks to me like everybody’s looking for a short-term fix here for Carolina Beach Inlet and not taking the long view, and the long view is, let’s come up with something that makes sense for all inlets,” Blair said.
Lisa Wurtzbacher, county finance director and treasurer for the tourism development authority, prepared the draft agreement and sent it to all authority board members for consideration before the meeting. She said she plans to address concerns echoed by all board members before the Aug. 27 vote.