Corolla residents object to budget
By William F. West
Thursday, June 21, 2018
CURRITUCK — The Currituck Board of Commissioners this week approved a $50.1 million budget for next year, but not without protest from members of a Corolla citizens group who questioned county spending priorities in the Outer Banks community.
The county’s spending plan for 2018-19 keeps the property tax rate steady at 48 cents per $100 of valuation, but it does include a new 5-cent tax on property owners in the newly-created Corolla fire protection district.
The budget also includes fee increases for garbage disposal. Currituck residents who live outside Corolla will see their annual solid waste disposal fee rise $36 — from $114 to $150. Meanwhile, those who live in Corolla will pay $20 more next year — $270 instead of $250 — to have their garbage picked up at the curb.
Four residents signed up to address commissioners about next year’s budget at Monday’s commissioners meeting, all of them representing the Corolla Civic Association.
Bill Collins questioned the county’s plan to spend a share of occupancy tax revenues on additional fire, emergency medical and sheriff’s services during vacation season. Occupancy tax revenues are generated by the 6-percent tax Currituck charges on each cottage and motel room rental in the county.
Collins said his review of the county’s general budget shows seasonal costs represent 31 percent of the Currituck Fire-EMS budget and 17 percent of the Currituck Sheriff's Office budget. He said he wanted to know how the county justifies paying for such large percentages of those budgets with occupancy tax revenues.
Collins said commissioners need to be mindful that, under the statute allowing Currituck to levy its occupancy tax, revenues are supposed to be kept segregated. If monies from the tax are diverted to “unauthorized expenditures,” he said, commissioners could be held “liable personally” for it.
"So my question is whether the commissioners have consulted with their own personal attorneys regarding how the occupancy tax is spent, in accordance with the OT (occupancy tax) statute," he said.
Edward Cornet told commissioners the Corolla Civic Association has tried to talk with county officials about beach overcrowding and beach erosion, but has largely been ignored.
Cornet claimed that in April, the association, on behalf of Corolla citizens, also asked to have a meeting with commissioners and County Attorney Ike McRee to discuss the county’s investment strategy for occupancy tax revenues.
He said the civic group raised Corolla citizens’ concerns at the meeting, but the county’s response was to postpone monthly meetings with the association.
Cornet also claimed that, based on his review of the budget, the county is facing a $1.5 million shortfall. He asked how it would be paid for.
In her remarks, Gerri Adams reminded commissioners they are supposed to be citizens’ elected representatives.
"There are so many issues here that we feel we are not being heard on," she said. "We present our position on some of the budget items. We've asked repeatedly to have meetings to talk to someone about our concerns about this budget, to no avail. We get no response — and that's a big concern to me.”
Adams expressed concern that a bike path along N.C. Highway 12 on the Currituck Outer Banks remains incomplete and that there’s still no public playground in the Corolla community.
She said Corolla citizens feel ignored when they bring up these issues.
"You're not listening to us. You're not looking at the needs," Adams said.
Barbara Marzetti, president of the Corolla Civic Association, said the group isn’t trying to be difficult. Its members just want to be informed about their county government and have a voice in what it does, she said.
"We're not ogres," she said. "We're fairly reasonable, educated people."
Responding to the Corolla citizens’ comments, Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig said that he and Commissioners Bob White and Paul Beaumont have reached out to the Corolla Civic Association to discuss the group’s concerns. He claimed commissioners have never said they would not meet with the association again.
"So, Mr. Cornet, that was a misleading statement, if I can keep that for the record," Hanig said. "In no way, shape or form was that ever said."
"The monthly meetings were discontinued," Cornet said from the audience.
"We did not discontinue them, Mr. Cornet," Hanig responded.
Under questioning from Hanig, County Manager Dan Scanlon said the county is audited annually about its use of occupancy tax revenues, and Currituck has never been advised it is violating any state laws.
Beaumont, also responding to Cornet, said looking at the budget spreadsheet closer, the county does not have a $1.5 million deficit.
"It's great to come up and throw these things around, but we need to know our facts before we accuse the county and my fellow commissioners of not being in the loop as to what the true costs are," Beaumont said.
Under questioning from Beaumont, Scanlon also pointed out the budget includes funding for engineering services to gather data about erosion rates on Currituck’s beaches. Scanlon has previously said this will help the county make decisions to control erosion along a lengthy stretch of the beach.
White, whose district includes the Currituck Outer Banks, cited property owners’ reluctance to sell as the reason the bike path along N.C. 12 can't be completed. He said the county has attempted, without success, to acquire the land needed to complete the bike path.
"That's not us," White said. "We can't do anything about it. We've tried and tried and tried."
White also said he’s repeatedly brought up the subject of a playground in Corolla and commissioners have discussed the matter.
"It is something we're considering and working on," he said.
Some of the Corolla residents’ concerns were also outlined in a four-page list of questions the Corolla Civic Association emailed to the county last Friday.
The questions focus on spending in the county's general operating budget and $10.5 million travel and tourism budget. The group also asked when it will get a response to the public records request it made of the county in January.
Scanlon told commissioners Monday night that county staff began working on responses to the civic group’s email that day and were "about 80 percent done" with the answers. Scanlon said the responses could be ready by the end of the week.
As for the association's public records request, McRee told commissioners he'll be forwarding responses to the association's attorneys this week. McRee also noted he has kept the association's attorneys updated about the county’s process for responding to the request, which involves sorting through thousands of county emails.