Terms of use for inlet dredging funds debated

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Before more than $1 million recently allocated for inlet dredging is made available to communities, local stakeholders must agree on guidelines for using the money.

A pool of untapped room occupancy tax (ROT) collected in the unincorporated areas of the county, or District U, was identified as a source of funding for inlet maintenance in a law fresh from the 2014 short session. The money was previously earmarked for beach renourishment in the unincorporated areas, but no beaches in those areas need renourishment.

County officials say the law was passed with Carolina Beach Inlet, which lost federal funding in 2005, in mind. But Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair is hesitant to support a solution he sees as unfair without equal access for Masons Inlet.

“Carolina Beach definitely needs their inlet dredged. That’s not disputed. How it gets paid for, though, how you can help one group wholeheartedly and just overlook the other group that’s been bearing the hardship all along — it just blows my mind,” Blair said.

The New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority board, tasked with oversight of the money, discussed two documents determining the fate of the funds during an Aug. 27 meeting. Under a memorandum of understanding, funds dedicated in the law to tourism-related activities will be reserved for inlet maintenance. Rep. Ted. Davis Jr., R-New Hanover, requested the memorandum to ensure the money is used as originally written in the law, before it was changed to comply with state law governing ROT use.

County finance director Lisa Wurtzbacher, who prepared the memorandum and accompanying guidelines for use of the money, requested the board only vote on the memorandum during the meeting due to lingering concerns about the guidelines. Some board members, like Blair, preferred to postpone both votes.

Davis threatened to repeal the law if the memorandum did not pass.

“I’ll just repeal it and you all can sit down here with this money going to a fund that you can’t use. Because believe me, this was not what I intended when I did all this. I did this to help you. I did not do this to cause a bunch of problems,” Davis said.

The memorandum was approved 10-3 with Blair dissenting.

Blair said he did not disagree with the memorandum, but rather the accompanying guidelines that explain how funds can be used. He did not support the memorandum because he wanted to take care of it and the guidelines simultaneously.

The present guidelines cap annual access to the funds at $187,500 for Carolina Beach Inlet and $62,500 for Masons Inlet. Blair said the guidelines must be equally available to Masons Inlet to be fair.

Property owners on the northern end of Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island pick up the tab for Masons Inlet maintenance following the 2002 relocation of the inlet. Access to the ROT funds, of which Blair said Figure Eight Island is a main contributor, would alleviate the property owners’ financial burden.

“Masons Inlet has shouldered the entire cost of their inlet dredging for the past 10 years, 100 percent. They’ve gotten no county money.  Now all of a sudden, they make the U District money available, which could have been made available 10 years ago. If everybody was interested in being equitable, Masons Inlet should have gotten some relief all along,” Blair said.

A vote on the guidelines is planned for an Oct. 29 authority board meeting. Wurtzbacher said the county plans to organize discussions with stakeholders to iron out concerns before the meeting.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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