Friday, May 30, 2008

The economic outlook for is summer still looks good.

Though Memorial Day figures are fully realized yet, the summer should still be bustling with our Summer guests. See a recent article for a more detailed breakdown

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Taxes proposed to stay the same, more law enforcement for Corolla

In the County Manager's budget report to the Commissioners, property taxes would stay the same. Outer Banks side of Currituck would get 8 new police officers. Here is the report from John Henderson of the Daily Advance:

CURRITUCK — Just as most Currituck families are tightening their finances during the current economic downturn, county government must do the same, County Manager Dan Scanlon told commissioners on Tuesday.

Scanlon expressed that sentiment as he unveiled a $47.9 million spending plan for next year that represents a less than 1 percent increase from the current year's budget.

The proposed budget includes no tax or fee increases. The tax rate would remain the same as the current year — 32 cents for every $100 of assessed property value.

"We are in a declining environment," Scanlon said. "We are not seeing an appreciable increase in our tax base. It isn't the time for government to look at expanding services and programs."

The only major personnel change in the proposed budget is the addition of eight new deputies to cover the Corolla area. The expenditure was actually approved by commissioners last year.

The new budget calls for spending $996,235 million more on the sheriff's department in the coming year, which includes the cost of the new deputies. Sheriff Susan Johnson has asked that the amount be increased about $150,000 to add a supervisory position.

"Now we only have one supervisor (in Corolla). I'm asking for a second one," Johnson said.

She said the new deputies would be in training for six months. "It will be next July before they are actually ready to go," she said.

Corolla residents can't wait. They have been pleading with the county for beefed up law enforcement. It was a campaign issue in the recent primary election, and it was a rallying cry by some who advocated incorporation a few years ago.

Scanlon told commissioners that the county would have to be frugal for the next several years. All signs point to a real estate market in Currituck that has significantly slowed, and along with it, the county's tax base, he said.

"We have seen a significant decrease in building permits," Scanlon said. "We have seen a significant decrease in (land) transfer taxes. Those have an immediate effect today, because that is revenue we are not collecting today. If we're not issuing building permits today, you're not going to expect significant increases in our tax base the next year or year after."

Increases in the assessed value of property in Currituck – which determines what homeowners pay in taxes – have significantly slowed in recent years.

From 1999 until 2005, assessed values of property in Currituck increased by 5 percent or more each year, which gave the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra revenue to spend even if commissioners adopted the identical tax rate as the year before.

"We've enjoyed a very robust economy, a very robust increase in a our tax base, Scanlon said.

But no more.

Assessed property value has increased by only 1.01 percent this fiscal year, and 0.61 percent last fiscal year.

Moreover, land transfer fees that are paid to the county by sellers at real estate closings have decreased by more than $2 million from two years ago.

And sales tax revenue has been flat.

"You are not seeing a growth in sales tax (revenues)," Scanlon said. "Not what we have traditionally seen."

The county plans to set aside $4.2 million of its $20 million emergency fund to spend, if need be, in the coming fiscal year, Scanlon said. But that shouldn't be construed to mean that the county's reserve fund will be depleted by a quarter, he said.

"We may spend none of it. We might spend half of it. We might spend all of it. I don't think we will spend all of it," Scanlon said.

The one bright spot in Currituck's economy is tourism. Occupancy fees paid to the county when visitors stay in rentals and hotels are at an all-time high, with $8.3 million collected through April.

"People are saying right now they feel pretty good about what is going on in the Outer Banks," Scanlon said. "I'm hearing reports that folks are coming (to visit)."

Commissioners will review the proposed budget at their June 2 meeting, and are slated to give it final approval on June 16.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mid-county span draws worldwide attention

Designers, builders, financiers sought
From a recent meeting in Raleigh, the Daily Advance article reported:

Staff Writer

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Companies from around the world are expressing interest in designing, financing and building the Mid-Currituck bridge.

At a meeting held in Raleigh last week, representatives from 13 firms discussed the project with officials from the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

Also in attendance were several hundred people representing companies wanting to handle some aspect of the project, said Grady Rankin, the authority's chief financial officer.

"We were very pleased with the meeting," Rankin said. "I'd describe the interest as high."

The proposed two-lane toll bridge linking Currituck's mainland and Outer Banks is planned to open in 2013. The project's current estimated cost is $459.6 million.

Rankin said representatives from several major European companies are interested because design-build-finance projects like the proposed mid-county bridge are more common in Europe.

"There are significant advantages for bringing the (design-build-finance) teams together under one tent," he said.

It will be North Carolina's first attempt at such a venture.

"There is no doubt the private sector can do it," Rankin said, referring to building the bridge. "I think major question is how much support it will require from the state of North Carolina. That has yet to be determined."

Just because the private sector has expressed interest in the bridge doesn't mean the project can completely be financed with private funds. More than likely there will have to be some state funding, he said.

"One of our objectives is to minimize the costs to the state to get the project off the ground," Rankin said.

It's not clear yet whether one company will be hired to operate and maintain the bridge after it is built.

Ralph Salamie, an engineer with Kiewit, Pacific Structures District in Vancouver, Wash., attended the meeting because his firm is interested in building the bridge. But to land the contract, Kiewit would have to join forces with other firms to handle financing and design, he said.

"If you develop it as a team, and approach the job as a team, it's nothing really out of ordinary, combining people," Salamie said.

Barry Nelms, chairman of the Currituck Board of Commissioners, said the wide interest in the bridge project is a positive sign.

"It is encouraging, because that will mean more competition, and with that, theoretically, you can get the best price and the best design," Nelms said. "We're excited we've got a lot of interest in it."

Nelms said devaluation of the dollar has made projects in America like the mid-county bridge more attractive to foreign-based companies.

"Because construction is down nationwide, it makes this a more favorable time to take on a project of this magnitude," he said.

Although the exact toll on the bridge has not been determined, the Turnpike Authority is projecting that motorists over a 39-year period would pay as much as $12 for a two-way trip. The toll will be collected to pay back investors who are expected to front the bulk of the money needed to fund the estimated $459.6 million project.

"This project has been looked at since the '60s," Nelms said. "I think that it's going to happen. Everybody at the county and state level are in a cooperative mood, and we're going to hopefully make it a very worthwhile, and a really nice bridge."

County Commissioner Gene Gregory, who attended last week's meeting, also sees the interest in the bridge as an encouraging sign.

"It was a great showing," he said. "I think we're well on our way to getting this bridge built. I feel closer to getting the bridge built now than ever. I think the people are finally realizing how badly we need a bridge."

Gregory said the bridge is sorely needed for hurricane evacuation and access to the Outer Banks. Today, the only route to Currituck's northern beaches from the mainland is a trip over the Wright Memorial Bridge and up N.C. Highway 12.

The process of picking a firm to handle the design-build-finance project is expected to take the remainder of the year, Rankin said.

He said the authority will soon be seeking information from companies about their qualifications to build the bridge.

"It is sort of a two-step process," he said. "We will select three or four teams, then we'll submit a request for proposals that is much more specific about what they propose to do."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Wild Horse Study: Smaller herd suffering genetic harm

In a study recently reported in the Daily Advance, a Texas A&M professor advises that adding horses would reduce inbreeding. See article below:

Staff Writer

Monday, May 05, 2008

The wild horse herd in Corolla has suffered genetic harm as the result of a Currituck County-endorsed program limiting its size, a study has concluded.

Inbreeding among the horses is the culprit, and could lead to defects, according to a study released by Texas A&M professor Gus Cothran, an equine geneticist who is a worldwide expert on feral herds.

A new study by a Texas A&M University professor suggests that the smaller size of the herd of wild horses on Currituck County Outer Banks is hurting its genetic diversity.

DNA testing taken of the herd of 89 showed "low genetic diversity" due to the inbreeding among the small herd, Cothran said. The horses have not yet shown outward physical signs of deformities, but that will become a possibility if the herd numbers aren't increased, he said.

"There certainly are 20,000 known genetic defects in humans," Cothran said. "Any one of those is a possibility" in the horses.

Examples could include clubbed feet or dwarfism, he said.

To prevent any further genetic decline, Cothran is recommending that the herd be allowed to reproduce and grow in number, and a few new horses be injected into the mix.

Cothran's study is recommending a herd in excess of 110 to increase genetic diversity. But that would conflict with an agreement to limit the herd to 60 that was agreed to in 1999 by Currituck County, the National Wildlife Refuge, and the herd's overseers, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

Federal officials have been concerned that too large of a herd could damage the habitat at the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge makes up a large portion of the horses' grazing area on the Currituck Outer Banks north of Corolla.

Refuge manager Mike Hoff could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Karen McCalpin, the director of the Corolla Wild Horse fund, said the group is trying to be pro-active before the horses start to show outward physical genetic deformities.

"Low genetic diversity (in the horse's DNA samples) means it is starting to be a problem, that already irreparable genetic harm has occurred (to the horses)," she said. "We're recommending ways to prevent further harm, to have a larger herd."

The horses are believed to be descendents of Spanish mustangs that arrived several hundred years ago, and are considered a tourism draw for Currituck County.

A few years ago, the herd numbered 119. But in the past year, an aggressive adoption effort and a birth-control program have reduced its size to 89.

"We've physically removed horses. We adopted out 30 horses in the last 18 months," McCalpin said.

In the wake of Cothran's study, the horse fund has requested a moratorium on the removal of horses. The birth control program would remain in effect, however.

"In the meantime, we are trying to gather scientific data that all of us need to make a management plan that will be in best interest of the wild horses," McCalpin said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Estuarine Research Reserve will be conducting a study to determine exactly where the horses are feeding and what impact they are having on the wildlife refuge.

"The 'impact and carrying capacity study' will give us a lot of important data we don't have, not just about horses, but the impact of feral hogs, what kinds of vegetation are being eaten by which animal," McCalpin said.

She said the information could help define what areas should be a horse sanctuary.

"The ultimate goal is to be able to own that land," McCalpin said. "That will help me when I go to a foundation to ask for support to purchase land."