Sunday, December 15, 2013

A new definition of cornucopia

Hyde County residents have little to laugh about in what is one of the poorest counties in the state. But if you want to hear a huge belly-laugh, visit a local eatery at lunch and loudly announce "I'm the government and I'm here to help." Note: wear running shoes because when the laughter stops, you might have to run for your life.

To understand the impacts and importance of the latest controversy - shallow depths and salt water intrusion into Lake Mattamuskeet, the state's largest freshwater lake - one has to be able to place it in the context of the county's economic history and demographics.

The US Census estimates that between 2010 and 2012, there was less than one percent population growth; the North Carolina Department of Commerce predicts no growth in the next five years. There are few well paying jobs and prospects of a "job-creator" locating there are slim.

While 84.1 percent of the state's residents are high school grads, only 75.7 percent of Hyde County residents have completed high school. The state percentage of residents holding at least a bachelor's degree is 26.5; only 10.7 percent of Hyde residents have degrees in higher education.

The Hyde County school district is already one of the poorest in the state but due to actions in the General Assembly this past session, it will lose a half million dollars of state funding in each of the next two years. Many of the students who do graduate and attend college choose not to return to the county with their degrees because there are few opportunities for them..

Statewide, 16.1 percent of the residents are at or below poverty level; in Hyde County more than a quarter of the residents are in that slot on the economic scale. This current administration's cuts to food stamps, unemployment benefits and the state's refusal to accept Medicaid that would have given some access to health care is being exacerbated by the closing of the closest hospital in Belhaven. Hospitals were receiving federal funds to help offset the cost of treating those without financial means to pay but when the Medicaid expansion went into effect, the federal subsidies to hospitals ended and the state refused the Medicaid funds.

About 33 percent of the population is African-American and about another seven percent is comprised of other minority races; the population trends more toward the elderly than the young.

The cuts in unemployment benefits are particularly problematic on Ocracoke which has mostly a seasonal economy and thus many businesses close in the winter.

Cornucopia usually refers to a horn of plenty - a symbol of abundance and nourishment. But Hyde residents have long been treated to a cornucopia of government neglect and broken promises. And every step back on the mainland portion of the county is felt by residents and businesses in Ocracoke Village located on Ocracoke Island.

A large portion of the county's tax revenue is dependent on the tourism drawn to the village and the higher property values on the island. The 700-acre village is accessible only by ferry - about two hours from the mainland or 45 minutes from Hatteras Island. The mainland ferry has a tax of $15 each way. There is no tax on the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry - the village's only free access. But the state has been contemplating charging for the ferry - it was in the state budget but was pulled out and sent to a regional board to decide. If there is a tax added to it, Ocracoke Village will become the only community in the state whose residents and visitors will be taxed to enter and leave.

(At the time of this writing, the tax to ride the ferries to and from the mainland are temporarily waived due to the closure of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge because of safety concerns. The bridge was the only free access for those going across Hatteras and Pea islands to the northern beaches.)

Ocracoke Village's economy has already been hurt by government actions. The island is 16 miles long and ranges from a half-mile to three miles wide. Except for the small village, the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. For decades, the surrounding beaches drew visitors who wanted to fish on the beach, bird-watch, or just lay out in the sun. But that changed a few years back when the National Park Service which manages the property filed a plan to close off large portions of the beach to protect birds and turtles. To drive on the beach in the areas that are open, a permit is required - the cost of the permit ranges from $50 for a week to $120 for an annual pass. Most of the beaches are not reasonably accessible by foot and the closed areas also are mostly closed to pedestrians.

The businesses on the island have worked hard to minimize the economic impact but it is an ongoing struggle - it's difficult to make lemonade when the lemons are gone. It is still a beautiful place to vacation and that has been the village's saving grace.

The tax revenues generated by the tourism-based economy on the island is used support a large portion of the county's budget.  The mainland of Hyde is rural and depends primarily on commercial fishing and farming. The commercial fishing industry has been negatively impacted during the last decade by ever-increasing regulations as well as the frequent loss of safe passage through Oregon Inlet for those vessels that fish the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Frequently, seafood that would be landed in Engelhard or Swan Quarter is off loaded in other locales because of accessibility. This impacts local fish houses and reduces the number of employees used for off loading, packing, cleaning, etc.

Farming is periodically hit with woes caused by droughts or an over abundance of rain that saturate crops.

Off the beaten path, the county has never been able to attract job-creating industries that depend on good transportation corridors and skilled workers.

But a little more than a decade or so ago, there was a glimmer of hope of developing a different sort of tourism economy on the mainland. Bass fishermen and waterfowl hunters already flocked to Lake Mattamuskeet to enjoy the great fishing and unrivaled hunting opportunities.

The old lodge at the lake was opened for meetings, weddings, and as a place researchers could stay for a night or two while they collected data for various studies. In the late fall, local groups came together to produce the Swan Days Festival at the lodge and which attracted tourists, artists, photographers and locals. For what was probably the first time ever, there were reasons to go to Lake Mattamuskeet for things other than fishing and hunting. It was becoming a "destination" where hundreds of thousands of Tundra Swan and Snow Geese flew in each fall and winter and their presence created an unrivaled backdrop of beauty for any event or activity.

And then the plug was pulled out of this potential life boat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the lodge closed due to structural safety issues. Long-known repairs had gone without attention year after year because of federal budget cuts. With the closing, the mainland lost its little ray of hope to be able to grow its share of the economy through use of the lodge coupled with the existing use of the lake.

Years passed without any repairs to the lodge which drew the ire of former North Carolina Sen. Marc Basnight. He set out to try to give the county back its hope for a better future by wheeling and dealing until the federal government agreed to give the lodge portion of the refuge to the state. The state, in turn, made a commitment to restore the lodge with the ambition of jump-starting the mainland's economy again. The work was designed to be done in phases and the first was completed and the second was funded when the national economic downturn hit. Although the money was appropriated, the Council of State chose not to release it because of fears that it would be needed to balance the budget. As more years went by, the money slipped back into the state coffers and off legislators' radar.

Management of the federal portion of Lake Mattamuskeet has frequently changed over the years as managers stayed just long enough to find another slot.

There are no movie theaters or other entertainment venues and, because of high transportation costs, basic necessities such as groceries and gas are not competitively priced compared to surrounding counties.

Although the school system strives hard to offer a sound education, lack of resources often finds it wanting. These and other issues make the county a less than desirable place to live - particularly for young professionals. In fact, these same short-falls also make it difficult to attract education professionals to the schools on the mainland and on Ocracoke.

Because of the high turnover rate of refuge managers, the focus and the action plans often change before any plan can be completed. And each new refuge manager has brought with them a different objective and new priorities.

And that is the basis for the current controversy - the low water and salt water intrusion into the lake. Those upset about the condition of the lake have started a campaign to try to bring attention and resolution to the problem. Long before the area surrounding the lake became a waterfowl hunting mecca, it was widely known for its great bass fishing. And locals routinely subsistence fished the shoreline and the causeway to stretch their food meager food budgets by catching perch, catfish, crappie and bream.. But it seems that those species are being replaced with salt water species such as red drum and flounder.

The opponents of the current management plan say that allowing the depth to become so consistently shallow has led to fish kills and that wetlands are being drained. The latter issue, they say,  is allowing invasive species of grasses to flourish in some areas. And dredging work on canals leading from Pamlico Sound to the lake have added woes.

The basis of their concerns, they say, is that one of the few draws left to lure recreational fishermen to the area is being lost and that future generations won't be able to gain the potential economic benefit of having a well-maintained fresh water lake.

They also say that the changes at the lake are affecting a number of species of birds. Eagles and ospreys who often could be seen fishing the lake are becoming rarer. And although the total number of birds is up, that there are fewer swans and geese but more ducks.

Supporters of the current management include farmers who have lands bordering the lake. They say that the lower depths have allowed some of their property to drain and given them more land to farm.

If the lake's freshwater fisheries completely collapse and thus negatively affect recreational fishing, it will cost the mainland the lost potential revenues. And Ocracoke Village, the county's golden goose, may find itself being plucked even more in the future as the county tries to find revenues to support the functions of government.

A working group has been formed and they have a website with information at savemattamuskeetlake.net. The motto of the group is written on signs placed around the county - "Save Mattamuskeet Lake".

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to have "Save Hyde County".






Sunday, November 3, 2013

White hair manifesto

     I've reached the age when I am entitled to my opinions, prejudices and declarations. Some think that only the young can have goals but as long as there are days, weeks or years ahead, there is plenty of time to grow. I grew up in an age where women were "taught their place" and there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it came to women expressing an opinion that wasn't dictated by the norm, the husband or the father. The word "won't" was often stripped from our vocabulary. But, now, more than six decades into my life, I'm reclaiming the word with gusto.  
     This is my manifesto.

I won't stop checking out men's bodies.


     1. Just 'cause there's snow on the rooftop don't mean there ain't a fire in the hearth.
     2. My eyes may be old but my mental state is into the delights of each day...a girl's always gotta dream.

I won't watch shows that portray older women as silly, naive and in need of rescuing.


     1. I find it demeaning and insulting except when the role is played by Betty White.
     2. If she wasn't smart, she wouldn't be making big bucks at 90-plus...who gets the last laugh now?

I won't be nice to door-to-door salesmen regardless of their product.


     1. Religion is too important and personal to pitch it door-to-door like it is a super-duper cleanser..
     2. Young men trying to enter my home to clean the carpet are suspicious to say the least.

I won't shop stores that assume that I want pull-on polyester pants and butt-ugly shoes.


     1. I'm not going to give up my tennis shoes or high heels.
     2. God gave us a waist and if he wanted elastic around it, he would have provided a rubber band.

I won't listen to those who begin sentences with "back in your day."


     1. I haven't left all my days behind me.
     2. My days didn't end with the speaker's entry into the world.

I won't show a photo ID to receive chemo treatment if I ever need it.


     1.  It would take a nut case to impersonate a cancer patient so that they could fraudulently receive a chemical cocktail with horrendous side effects.
     2. If the doctor is dumb enough to think that someone is going to use identity theft  to get a chemical fix, then I want a new doctor.

I won't shop stores that give senior discounts only on certain days.


     1. The specified days may not work with my schedule.
     2. There is no reason why my age should be beneficial just one day a week. It took me 66 years to get here so that should count for something.

I won't deal with anyone who talks loudly and slowly to me.


     1. I am not deaf.
     2. My mental faculties haven't been left by the roadside but, if you speak slowly, by the end of the sentence, I may forget the beginning of it.

I won't suffer the company of self-proclaimed "self-made" successes.


     1. If they are so smart, why don't they know that without their parents, they would be nowhere - literally!
     2. Every single "success" story includes someone else who inspired, mentored, helped financially, or who emotionally supported the person on their way up the ladder to "success."

I won't be "politically correct."


     1. Almost every time someone uses the term "African-American", they are showing the bias that they are trying to cover up because rarely is a person's ancestry pertinent to a conversation, and to note it only for one group of people is singling that group out. 
     2. I don't and won't have Gay friends, African-American friends, Jewish friends...I just have friends, most of whom are different from me in some way which is what makes life interesting.

I won't wear under-wire push-up bras.


     1. They are uncomfortable and the results often look silly.
     2. When a mature woman goes from a 34-C to a 34-long bra, if she rolls 'em up to tuck into a push-up bra, if not careful, what's showing has creases that catch cookie crumbs. (Truth no one wants to share.)

I won't watch Fox News or MSNBC.


     1. Both tend to feed specific political ideologies by often ignoring inconvenient truths.
     2. No one individual or party is right every day or wrong every day. 

I won't "watch my language".


     1. Until someone can point to The Great Decider who decides what language is acceptable, I'll just decide it myself.
     2. Sometimes it is correct to call a spade a spade; but sometimes, it's just a damned old shovel.

I won't stop renewing my birth control prescription.


     1. It gives my doctor something to talk about at medical conventions and gives the pharmacist something to smile about.
     2. I get great joy whipping them out when I'm with young women who, although aghast, are afraid to ask why I have them or if I actually take them. (I don't but I always remove a few of them just so it looks like I am.)

I won't give up my right to add to or delete from my manifesto at a mere whim.


     1. I learn something new each day so will hold on to my options to change my opinions.
     2. It's my manifesto.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Through the eyes of preservationists


Historic preservationists have to have two sets of eyes: One that looks clear-sightedly at the past and one that sees into the future. It’s a trick, and not all people have, or want to have, the duel perception. But once you have it, it’s darned hard not to look at an old structure and begin the imagining – what did that place look like in its heyday, who frequented it, what went on there, how did that building influence the people who lived here? You can blur your eyes a little and help the past come into a vibrant focus. But those people who don’t have the duel perception look at old buildings and see just that. Old. Time for something else. It’s a legitimate perspective, it’s just not how we preservationists perceive.

Thus the conflict arises that many of us have experienced – one group wants to tear down an old structure to make room for their new whatever, the other group wants to preserve and repurpose. The members of Manteo Preservation Trust (MPT) and concerned townspeople from the small coastal North Carolina area called Roanoke Island are in this tug of war right now over saving our Works Progress Administration-era gym. On the other end of the rope is the Board of Education and other concerned townspeople who see the gym as old and tired and in the way of their needed school addition. And it is a needed addition, no quarrel over that. But MPT has come up with a solution that would give the school board more space than what they would obtain from tearing down the old gym with no additional cost to them. Still, the tug of war persists. From a preservationist’s perspective, the intriguing question has to be…why?

When logic, cost-saving and time-saving don’t sway a decision toward preserving a structure, what’s at play? We at MPT are asking that question and trying hard to find the answer because we’re pretty sure preservationists all across the country have their own version of it. Is it a power struggle? The fuddie-duddies vs. the forward thinkers? The idea that anything new is better than anything with age? We have to listen for the answer with unbiased ears; too much is at stake, not only in this one old gym, not to. One answer we’ve formed revolves around, not surprisingly, eyes and ears. We often have to be taught what to see.

Since it’s a given that every single situation can be viewed with many different perspectives, our job as preservationists has to involve teaching. And that teaching has to be done well before a tug of war begins. In the heat of the tug, we don’t have time to tell the story of what that place once was, what it meant to so many people, why its walls contain more than brick or wood or cement. The reasons why each side is tugging become secondary to the very act of trying to pull the decision one way or the other.

So, whether we end up winning our battle over the WPA gym or not, we have learned a big lesson. You have to teach people how to see sometimes – how to see past the exterior and into the heart and soul of a place. And this seeing has to be taught in neutral times, when the tugging rope has been dropped and both sides have time to unflex their muscles and expand their vision. 


 


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Additional WPA gym photos

Since posting the blog below about the MES expansion, I've received emails asking if there are more photos of the inside of the building. We are blessed to have a photo fairy on the Outer Banks, so following are links to more pictures of the inside of the WPA gym. The assortment shows the good, the bad and the ugly.
Picture 1 click here. Picture 2 click here; Picture 3 click here. Picture 4 click here. Picture 5 click here. Picture 6 click here. Picture 7 click here.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Back story on MES expansion

There is an important and interesting back story behind the Manteo Preservation Trust's recent proposal to swap land with the Dare County Schools  in an effort for MPT to gain ownership of the WPA-built gym.

In the spirit of full disclosure, recently I was hired by the MPT to write a press release explaining the importance in preserving the building and how the school could benefit from a land swap while not delaying construction of the new addition to the school.

Today, MPT agreed to release me from writing on its behalf. I made the  request because while doing due diligence before writing the release, some interesting facts began to emerge and even more troubling questions surfaced. MPT's goal is just to get a fair hearing of their proposal so preferred not to question recent decisions of the school board related to the overcrowding of Manteo Elementary School.

I respect MPT's decision not to raise negative questions about the school board's decision-making but as a journalist, a strong advocate of open government and transparency, unwavering supporter of public education and as a taxpayer, I feel strongly that the public is due all the facts.

Wanchese parents have been misled and used as a political hammer by the school board to get its way.

The most obvious question that apparently hasn't been asked is how many elementary students live in that community and what is the racial demographic make-up?

Unless the student racial mix of Manteo Elementary School changes dramatically in the next several years, busing students from Wanchese to Nags Head  might put the school board at risk of taking on significant legal challenges based on a laundry list of Constitutional and federal legislative mandates. Currently, according to GreatSchools.com, the student population is 64 percent white and 36 percent minority. This national nonprofit that rates schools has significantly different numbers of students and class size than those usually cited. It was updated in May and according to the website, information is obtained by pulling numbers from the state related to standardized testing.

Most of the minority students appear to live in Manteo or on the mainland. If the Wanchese students were removed it could significantly change the demographic make up.

There are plenty of questions about the planned addition. The first clue that something is amiss is the contract for demolishing the old gym. The school board asked the county to approve $62,680 and said that it includes the tipping fees . I've helped negotiate contracts for demolition of homes and for a modest size house constructed from wood, the cost has ranged from $11,000 to $15,000 and didn't include tipping fees. The gym is two-story and the footprint is several times larger than most homes.

The gym is unique in that it is built of solid concrete - not cinder - blocks, The concrete blocks were made in Dare County by CCC workers in the 1930's using portland cement and sand gravel, (most likely sand, rock and shell) which was readily available. According to several companies that make these, the older the blocks are, the harder they are.

A number of years ago, the Town of Manteo decided to plant a couple of trees in a sidewalk made with the same type mix of concrete. When the man with the jackhammer began work, he looked like he was on a pogo stick bouncing up and down but not making a dent in the sidewalk.

The gym is going to take extraordinary effort to bring down which could lead to substantial cost overruns.

School officials say that the school is about 140 students above capacity but wants to build just six classrooms. which averages 23 per class. The school is pre-K through fifth grade and according to Education First North Carolina School Report Cards, Manteo Elementary class sizes range from 19 for kindergarten to 23 for fifth grade. So why are only six classrooms being added? Only a few families moving into the school's service area would put it over capacity again.

The current school is about seven years old and was supposed to serve the needs of Roanoke Island and the mainland for many years to come but was over capacity by 2008. According to the US Census, from the 2000 to the 2010 census, the Town of Manteo's population (only a small portion of the area being served by the school) grew by more than 36 percent. and the youth population for ages 0-4 grew a whopping 74 percent. To see the comparison of the two censuses go to http://censusviewer.com/city/NC/Manteo

Roanoke Island and the mainland are growing more rapidly than any other area of the county. For comparisons with other county communities go to http://censusviewer.com/city/NC/Nags%20Head to see Nags Head or to  http://censusviewer.com/city/NC/Kitty%20Hawk for a look-see at Kitty Hawk.

The MES student population increased substantially from 2000-2010 even though the area was hit by one of the worst economic downturns in recent times and prompted many to leave Dare County. This area has affordable housing and will continue to draw new residents who don't want to live on the beach. While many of the other areas serving individual schools within the county are almost at build-out status for adding new homes, the mainland and Roanoke Island have literally thousands of undeveloped residential lots. The implications don't take rocket science to understand.

Where could yet another addition be added? Wouldn't it make sense to double the current plan by building a two-story addition? The extra cost of an elevator and stairwells could be substantially offset by the fact that there would not need to be additional roof or foundation costs.

And if the school has been over capacity since 2008, why? There has been room at the Manteo Middle School that could be used for the fifth grade. There are schools all over the state that have K-8 in one school. As the middle school reaches capacity, the grade would have to be shifted back to MES but hopefully by that time a solution would have been accomplished.

The plans for the new school don't address parking for the additional staff needed for the new classrooms. There already are more staff vehicles than available spaces which has led many to park on the grass behind the school and in front of the old gym. How are the parking issues going to be resolved without taking more space away from the playground?

Several who posted comments on the Outer Banks Voice asked why if MPT was so concerned about the building, they hadn't kept it up. Easy answer - it is a public building and elected officials have an legal obligation to maintain and repair all public assets under their management. If the wiring is ancient, why wasn't it replaced? If there are termites, why wasn't it treated? The taxpayers deserve better care of their public buildings.

Luckily, because the outside structure is concrete, even termite damage doesn't hamper the integrity of the structure. But the interior is not in as bad shape as has been described by several. Click here to see a photo taken recently of the unique truss roof supports and click here to see what the collegiate-size basketball court looks like.

Whether you like old buildings or not, the land swap proposed by MPT could be a win-win. The county would gain 2.5 times the amount of property that the gym is sitting on. The teacher parking could be moved to the additional lots which are separated by a small lane on the north side of the school. Or the retention ponds could be moved there, and the land they now occupy could be put to good use. Where could a second addition be placed without purchasing more land in the future, or eliminating the playground, or substantially reducing the already inadequate teacher parking?

Planning with a vision for tomorrow instead of just stop-gapping for today could save millions down the road when the school board comes back to the county for yet another addition. If proper planning isn't done now, when the addition is completed, the school might - in fact probably - will still be over capacity. Although the school board has approved a contract for the building design, it means nothing until the board of commissioners approves it and provides a budget to pay the architect. Construction can still begin in January thus not delaying living up to the responsibility of providing adequate space for the students.

But whatever the decision, its time everyone played straight with the public instead of playing politics using the children and their parents as pawns. This shouldn't be about marching misinformed parents or pressured teachers before the commissioners to beg for a solution. It should be about realistically assessing the situation and putting forth a plan that will provide for ample space for a great education. And it should be done in a prudent manner that insures best use of tax dollars. Cheap today just means more expensive tomorrow.












Sunday, August 4, 2013

Not senator, not Mr. ... just Marc

Marc.

It has only been a little more than two years ago since the name "Marc" was uttered frequently when discussing how to accomplish projects, solve problems. Sometimes it was invoked to just show the world that the speaker had such a close personal relationship with arguably the most powerful man in the state that they could call him by his first name.

The truth was that everyone in Eastern North Carolina - and many other parts of the state - called him Marc - not Sen. Basnight, nor Mr. Basnight - just Marc. He had a personal relationship with every constituent who reached out to him regardless of party affiliation, socioeconomic status or county of residence. He truly loved people.

As a journalist, I covered him for a couple of decades. Some of his accomplishments I applauded; some sparked editorials critical of his actions. Some days, he liked me; some days he wished I'd go somewhere - Hell was probably the destination he had in mind.

But it never became personal - he is who he is; I am who I am.

Sadly, when he left office for health reasons, it was as though someone had used a huge eraser to wipe out his existence and all the very many things he did for the state. His name has mostly disappeared from everyday language usage.

I started noticing it right away and thought that folks were just caught up in trying to fill the seat and deal with a changing legislature.

But as time passed, I realized that it was more than that. The last race he was in was without a doubt one of the ugliest muckraking campaigns I've ever seen waged against anyone. Brutal attacks on him came in my mail, aired on television, played on the radio and were the focus of hundreds of print ads.

Marc was never perfect; no human is. But the attacks were slanderous, misleading and often based on out-and-out lies. I don't know how he managed to keep campaigning, but he did.

There is no way to be absolutely certain why his name and the lessons learned from his leadership have been so quickly cast aside, but I think it is due to fear. I think that the brutality of the negative campaigning against him caused many to turn their backs. It isn't because they believed it, but they were afraid that if they spoke his name, they would become the next target.

Marc could and did play good-old-boy politics just as those before him and those who are in power now.

But in 20 years, I don't know of a single time when he set out to hurt any individual or group. I don't know of any actions that were aimed at causing divisiveness between social classes, races, women or gays. I don't know of one instance when he put party politics above people - even if those people were Republicans.

And the reason he was chosen as Senate Pro Tem was simple - legislators, both Democrats and Republicans - knew he could get things done. And they knew he didn't hesitate to reach across the aisle to get the votes needed to keep things moving along.

The General Assembly session that just ended has produced legislation that is unbelievably destructive on many fronts. The negative impacts will be felt for years even if the Democrats could take back control tomorrow.

And now, that is the big question: can the Democrats take back some of the seats it lost in the last election?

It's possible but won't happen unless they take some time to stop and consider the legacy and lessons that Marc left the party.

To garner enough votes to make a difference, the party needs to understand why he was simply called "Marc."

There are many examples of how that came to be but one of the most obvious was the way he campaigned. Each year, he held a shindig at Wanchese Seafood Park and similar gatherings in other locales. They weren't those types of events that only those who had fat bank balances were invited to. They were open to everyone and everyone attended - Democrats, independent voters, rich and poor, men and women - and even Republicans. He knew the value of grassroots campaigning.

There were always donation checks passed to whomever was the 'money holder' for that year. Campaigns are expensive and need large donations, but Marc never lost sight of what the real prize was - votes. Ten people giving $10 each equated to 10 votes because each had become part of his campaign. Research has shown that $1,000 might be able to influence a few people through advertising but these are expensive votes.

And whether the check was $10 or $1,000, the gracious appreciation he showed was the same. When the event was over, each of those who attended knew that they had a special friend who valued them.

To each of them, he was just plain Marc.

And I miss him.











Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Found a star on my birthday!


Sometimes you have to look very hard to find the bright spots in life but on Monday in Raleigh, I didn’t have to look – the bright spots came to me. 

I was arrested at the Legislative Building on Monday night although I was not part of the official protest. I went to hold my own little protest because I feel very strongly that the protesters' Civil Rights are being violated. They have a Constitutional right to take their complaints to the capital, to express their opinions and to be inside the Legislative Building – it is a public building and they are members of the public. I read the building rules and can’t find any that are being violated. 

After they are arrested, they are told that they can't enter the building until after their court date although they are charged only with misdemeanors and have not been found guilty in a court of law.

Monday was my birthday so I chose to share it by handing out cupcakes, watch the protest, and witness the arrests. When the announcement was made to vacate the area in the Legislative Building, the protesters were in front of the Senate Chamber. I went to the opposite side of the rotunda and stood by the doors to the House Chamber.

All but the protesters left the area except for me who stood silently and quietly leaning against the wall. The police officers were courteous and polite but repeatedly said I should leave my vigil post or I would be arrested. After the protesters were handcuffed and led away, I was the only remaining person. And I was arrested.

That’s the nutshell version of what happened but it wouldn’t be complete without adding that legislators who occupied the first couple of offices passed when first entering the building, stood at their doors to welcome those who came in to voice their objections to the travesties that are taking place in the General Assembly. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch their names but I would like to tell them how much that impressed me.

But the biggest brightest star appeared a few hours later when I was released from jail and met outside by a small black woman who introduced herself as Sen. Earline Parmon who was there to support those who were arrested for speaking up and stepping out.

I was really taken off guard at that moment, not expecting a legislator to take the trouble of not only supporting the protesters but taking the time to meet them face to face as a way of saying “we are all in this together.”

Having missed dinner, I caught a ride to the church where they were feeding protesters and where I was to meet Beth Storie who participated in the protest and was arrested that night, Linda Willey who was booked a couple of weeks before, and Lovey Selby who was there to offer moral support and film the event.

I was eating my dinner when Sen. Parmon walked in the door and began going table to table to make sure that she hadn’t missed anyone at the Detention Center.

Her bio on the legislative website says she served five terms in the House and one term in the Senate. She is from Winston-Salem and noted as being retired but my guess is that just means she doesn’t get lots of money for her hard work.

It would be incorrect to describe her as a rising star because it is obvious that she is already casting her bright light wherever she can.

So on my birthday, I had a birthday bash with about 3,000 in attendance, exercised my Civil Rights, got a free glamour portrait, aka mug shot, and found a new hero.

Thank YOU, Sen. Parmon for demonstrating true humility and class.

Post Script: I was found not guilty because it was a public building and I had a right to be there.



Sunday, July 7, 2013

Almost here - my 'use it or lose it' birthday...

Tomorrow is the big day, happy birthday to me!

I can't wait to hand out my birthday cupcakes in the Legislative Building in Raleigh.

Some have told me that they think that this is a strange way to celebrate arriving at the big 66 but I think it is the only reasonable manner in which to honor those who have come before and after me. That's really what birthdays should be about.

My 17-year-old grandson, Justin Varner, has long had a desire to serve his county by joining the military so he can help to protect our freedoms. He has chosen the Army and will enter boot camp 11 months from now. He used early enlistment to get the MOS he wants - medic. I don't think he knows that when his great-grandmother joined the Women's Army Corps during World War II, that also was her first MOS. So he is carrying on family traditions of both protecting our freedoms and helping others.

I obviously can't join him in enlistment but if he is willing to give up college so that he can help defend our freedoms, then I have a responsibility to exercise them.

And that is what I will be doing tomorrow at the Legislative Building. I will share my birthday while I support the protesters' right to be in that building and to demonstrate their frustration with the actions of the General Assembly. I have read the rules governing the building and I see nothing that suggests that the protesters have violated any of them. It is a public building, they are the public and have a right to be inside until the General Assembly adjourns in the evening.

Those who are arrested are told that they have to promise not to enter the building again until after their court dates. How can someone be held under arrest for not agreeing to impose a restraining order on themselves? And how is it possible that anyone is asked to give up their Civil Rights when they have not been found guilty of anything?

While I'm in the Legislative Building, I'm going to see if I can get some answers to those questions and, if so, will share them with you on  a future blog.

A doctor recently told me to exercise more - "If you don't use it, you lose it," he said. I think that applies to our Civil Liberties so I'm going to exercise mine on a more regular basis starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Need help with birthday bash!

I'm getting very excited about my birthday bash in the legislative building in Raleigh on Monday, July 8.

For months many members of the General Assembly have repeatedly sent me an implied invitation to share my birthday cake, but, an actual cake would be too difficult to deal with so I'm resorting to cupcakes. Anyone who is looking for a birthday present for me might just want to bake a dozen or so small cupcakes to add to those I'm taking to Raleigh. Please remove the paper cup because it is illegal to litter inside the building, and I certainly wouldn't want to break the law after being so graciously invited.

As they cut education, refused Medicade coverage for 300,000, continue to try to toll the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry, push to allow chemicals in our aquifers, propose closing the state's three drug and alcohol treatment hospitals, and a long list of other things, their response to opposition has been "let them eat cake!" Now, how great is that? They have been inviting me to share my birthday cake! What a state!

If you aren't into baking, it wouldn't be a birthday party without games so I think trivia and knock-knock games would work best. I've come up with a few but need more. I can remember just so much, so I'll write them on my apron to remind me. If you can think of some, please send them to me via the comment link on this blog or email them to sandysemansross@gmail.com.

Here's a couple of examples of what I think would be fun and make my birthday guests smile..

1. How do you turn an elephant into a jackass?
    Just give him a seat in the General Assembly!

2. Knock, knock.
    Who's there?
    The Pope.
    The Pope who?
    The Pope who bought North Carolina!

What is happening in State government is not a laughing matter but I hope all will forgive me needing a little fun on my birthday. The rest of the world is laughing at the absurdity of what our elected officials are doing so perhaps we can use a little levity to make a point and express our outrage.




Sunday, June 30, 2013

Happy birthday to me, Cupcake!

On July 8th, I will be 66 years old and I'm going to treat myself to a big-time celebration in the state's capitol.

I just can't celebrate a birthday without thinking about two special people - my grandmother, Annie Dowdy Dorsey, and my mother, Ruby Elizabeth Dowdy Semans. Mom gave me life and they both - in very different ways - instilled in me purpose, a sense of responsibility and values.

Grandma was reared on a farm near the Appomattox Courthouse area of Viriginia. She moved with my grandfather to the mountains of West Virginia during the Great Depression so he could work in the coal mines and support his growing family that included eight children. He was injured in a mining accident that left him with grand mal seizures that the doctor warned were eventually going to take his life. Not wanting his family to go through the horrors of watching him go through the horrible ordeal, he left the family to fend for itself so they wouldn't see him die.

It would be an understatement to say that my grandmother was faced with an incredible challenge of trying to support her large brood, one of whom died of rickets while only a toddler,  But she did manage to rear the remaining seven into adulthood. She was very religious and held no animosity toward life and what it had dealt her. Courage, strength and both a healthy sense of worth and humor stayed with her until she died.

She taught me much, but I think the most important thing she instilled in me was that while everyone in the world might be as good as I am, no one is better just because they have power, money or a soap box.

And, of course, on my birthday, I always feel my mother nearby. She was the most patriotic person I've ever known. She gave me a sense of power when she showed me by example that each day, we give birth to our own government through both what we do and don't do. There was no doubt in her mind - nor now in mine - that the government is our child and when it misbehaves, we owe it as parents to use some tough love to get it back on the right course.

The first time I really exercised my tough love responsibility was standing up to a police officer who wrote me more than 200 parking tickets while ignoring the same car parked right beside me each time. I happened to walk out one day as he was writing the ticket and challenged him on the fairness. "Listen, Cupcake, he is a very important person and you just own a little store."

"Cupcake" refused to pay any of the tickets and demanded a trial before a judge. I have to admit that although I won that fight, it was just dumb luck. I started to tell the judge that I had let the meter run out but before I could get to the fairness issue, he suggested I keep quiet. It seems the good judge had spotted a problem with the parking ordinance and had been waiting for someone to challenge it. The way it was written, the fine could only be collected from the vehicle, not the owner. All my tickets were thrown out and none were issued until the ordinance was rewritten. Of course, I got the honor of getting the first ticket but that's okay - a win's a win!

I've been watching the protests in Raleigh and I don't particularly want to be arrested. Instead, on Monday, July 8, without wearing a ribbon indicating whether I want to be arrested or just be a supporter, I'm going into the building to share my birthday cake and celebrate my right to be in that building that rules state is open to the public until the General Assembly adjourns for the day which is usually late at night.

I'm not going to carry a placard or sign but will wear an apron just as my grandmother did when serving food and dishing out wisdom. And my message will be one taught to me by my mother for times when our child, our government, behaves badly.

I can't carry enough cupcakes for everyone there, so  if my friends who are going to be there would bring some to share, that would be great because I would like to celebrate my birthday with as many as possible.

And the message, while short, is simple: "Mama, aka Cupcake, is in the building and she's mad as hell."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Facing federal charges, Mann's passport returned

Chief US District Court Judge James Dever III has signed an order allowing the return of Manns Harbor resident Harry Mann's passport so that he can take a cruise although under federal indictment for his alleged role in the theft of an estimated $10 million in property from the US Navy at the Dare Bombing Range. (For details of indictment, read April 9 post on this blog.)

Mann, via his attorney, asked for the return of the passport so that he and 10 family members and friends can take a planned cruise later this month. The request stated that the final payment of the cruise was made in March of this year. To read the request, click here.

Federal prosecutors object to the idea of Mann leaving the country because, the opposition motion states that they have a solid case against the former bombing range manager that includes two co-conspirators willing to testify against him. The objection also refers to evidence that includes video and audio footage. To read the prosecutor's objection, click here.

But the judge ignored the objections and on Monday, May 20, Dever gave permission for the passport to be returned to Mann and, after the cruise, ordered that it be returned to the federal probation officer. To read the order, click here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

More bad news for fishermen

A last-minute bill filed in the House today proposes to make striped bass, red drum and speckled trout game fish. If signed into law, it would prohibit the commercial fishing industry to catch and sell the fish. The bill notes that restaurants can purchase the fish from out of state dealers where no game fish status applies.

In a "Do you just beat your wife on Saturday night" move, the bill also includes the scenario for raising revenues needed to dredge Oregon Inlet. That creates a problem for law-makers who want the dredging funds approved but not the game fish status.

To see the bill, click here.

Governor's budget proposal not fishing-friendly

Governor Pat McCrory's proposed budget was filed in the House today and it brings a bad omen for the state's commercial fishermen, seafood dealers, charter boat owners and pier owners. The governor is asking for a 50 percent increase for all licenses related to commercial and charter boat operations. The increase includes boat registrations for commercial and for-hire vessels.

The proposal also, if adopted, would allow the Marine Fisheries Commission to establish gear permits and charge up to $200 for each type.

Pier licenses are proposed to be increased from 50 cents a linear foot to $7.50 per foot which would include allowing pier fishermen to fish without buying an individual license. And the blanket recreational fishing license is proposed to be repealed. The blanket license for charter boats would still be available. [This paragraph has been corrected; the earlier version that pier fishermen would have to buy an individual license.]

For a look at the proposed budget, click here.



Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Former bombing range manager indicted

Harry C. Mann of Manns Harbor, former Stumpy Point Navy Bombing Range manager, was indicted on April 2, 2013 by a federal grand Jury on multiple counts of theft and conversion of federal property alleged to be valued at more than $10 million.

Two other men, Rudy Lozano and John Williams, both salvage recyclers from Chowan County, also have been indicted related to the same actions. The indictment against Mann states that they - as well as others known and unknown to the Grand Jury - conspired and agreed to work with Mann to facilitate the thefts.

The indictment alleges that the three entered into a plan to take government property from the Bombing Range and sell the property to individuals or to scrap metal recyclers.

In some instances, motors and batteries were removed and sold and the remaining portion of the vehicles was sold for scrap. At times, Mann provided a government-owned "low boy" to be used to remove the property from the range. Most of the alleged thefts occurred at night and on the weekends.

The indictment states that a 40,000-ton military personnel carrier was transported to a recycler. In another instance, metal matting for a runway was chopped into multiple sections and then removed from the premises.

At the time of the initial investigation of Mann, the federal government seized property, cash in his home and money deposited in bank accounts. The seizures totaled a value of more than $6.7 million.

Mann is scheduled to make first appearance in federal court on April 24.

Click here to read.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tillett subject of pending proceedings

A panel of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission has filed a complaint against Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett. The 13-page complaint will now be forwarded to another JSC panel for trial. The second panel can dispose of the matter in a number of ways including dismissal, public reprimand or forward to the North Carolina Supreme Court for consideration of removing Tillett from the bench.

To read the complaint filed against the judge, click here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Property Revaluation 101


    
   Dare County’s current $101 million budget is funded with a variety of sources, including federal and state money, grants, fees collected, and tax revenues derived from property taxes.

   Property tax revenues in the current budget total $49 million, slightly less than half the amount needed to pay for the total current budget that expires on June 30, 2013.

   During the last few years, foreclosures, the recession, and damage and/or loss of properties from storms has forced property values down from $17 billion to $12 billion.

  If the current tax rate of 28 cents per $100 is applied against the total of the new property values, the resulting revenues would be just $33.6 million – a $15.4 million shortfall in supporting the current budget of $101 million.



  To read the full explanation posted on Island Free Press, click here.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hamlin sentenced; order sealed


    Former Bank of America vice president, Loren Hamlin was sentenced on Friday, Feb. 8 in federal court held in Raleigh. Although the sentence was written on the docket report, the plea agreement has been sealed by the court. Below is the entry from the court docket. For more information, see previous post.

    "Minute Entry for proceedings held before Chief U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III in Raleigh: Defendant present with counsel and Assistant U.S. Attorney present for USA - Defendant sworn. Sentencing held on 2/8/2013 for Loren F. Hamlin (1). Count 1: Bureau of Prisons - 78 months - Supervised Release - 5 years with special conditions imposed - Special Assessment - $100.00 due in full immediately - Restitution - $12,010,536.00 due in full immediately - Interest Waived. Recommendations by the Court: Receive intensive substance abuse treatment - Place of incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina. Defendant advised of appeal rights. Allowed to self report as directed."

   Reporting to prison delayed. Click here for order.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Former Bank of America vice president to be sentenced Feb. 8

   More than six years after being fired from Bank of America's Kitty Hawk branch for his role in what is estimated to be a $13 million fraud, Loren Hamlin is scheduled to be sentenced in Federal Court on Friday, Feb. 8.
   During the six years since the discovery of the fraud, multiple law suits have been filed in both state and federal courts. The investment scheme that went awry has led to at least two bankruptcies filed as well as civil suits between various parties.
   And in a related case, a State Bar disciplinary hearing is set for March to consider complaints filed against former Kill Devil Hills Town Attorney Dan Merrell for a portion of his role in the matter.
   A plea deal for Hamlin was filed with the court about a year ago but has been kept under seal. The matter was set for hearing at that time, but the court agreed to a continuance so that a large piece of property in Perquirmans County that had been purchased with the absconded funds could be sold and placed against the amount of restitution. When the property sold at just a fraction of its original purchase price, another continuation was requested while attorneys for Hamlin apparently tried to change the portion of the plea agreement that dealt with the amount of restitution. And yet another continuation was granted after Hamlin informed the court that he was without legal representation because he could no longer afford to pay his attorney.
   Yesterday, in a flurry of last-minute filings, Hamlin's attorney asked the court to reduce the amount of his active sentence, but federal prosecutors countered with a filing opposing such a deal.
   Although the plea agreement is still sealed, the filings entered on Feb. 6 hint at what the terms may be and give Hamlin's version of what led to the theft.
   To read the request for reduced sentence, click here.
   To read the prosecutor's response, click here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top 10 Stories of 2013 - No. 4

  At the end of the year, publications often do a recap of what they deem to be the biggest stories of that calendar year. But I dance to a different drummer so below the reader will find the first four potential Top 10 stories I would like to read in 2013. To keep the posts from being too long, I am posting them separately over several weeks. They will not appear in any particular order - it isn't possible to predict the impact of stories until all the facts are known so there is no way of predicting which will prompt the most impact and/or interest.
   So here we go...

2013 Story No. 4


    According to a story posted on the N&O website on Jan. 9, the North Carolina State Board of Education was set to vote on whether to allow online charter schools for K-12. These for-profit virtual schools, if approved, would be eligible to receive taxpayers' dollars as do traditional charter schools.
   The number of brick-and-mortar charter schools has been and continues to grow across the state. The creation of some, such as the new charter school in Corolla, are easily defensible. That small school is serving about two dozen students who previously either had to pay tuition to attend Dare County schools or be bused through Dare County, across Wright Memorial Bridge and onto Currituck County mainland. The distance between their home village and the schools that they attended made for long days for the children and made it difficult for parents and students who wanted to be involved in school activities such as sports, teacher conferences. etc.  
   But charter schools opened to fill this type of need thus far have been the exception. Many are opened simply because parents want a private school type situation funded by tax dollars.
   When a charter school is approved for operation, the per student amount of tax dollars allotted to the public school system is transferred from the coffers of the public school system to charter school. For instance, if Dare County gives the Dare County Schools $5,000 per student, that amount is transferred to the charter school for each student enrolled thus shrinking the public school budget. The charter schools do not receive funding for buildings or maintenance.
   Due to charter schools funding, Pamlico County school system may lose about one-third of its funding in the next budget. Martin County, a low-wealth county, is shifting more than $350,000 from the local public school system to charter schools.
   An analysis of the impact of charter schools on public education is probably long over due. It would be interesting to see the following questions answered in a story about the topic:
    1. What is the overall educational standards track record of charter schools in North Carolina? How to they compare with public school districts?
   2. What oversight is provided by the state to ensure that state-mandated curriculum is followed?
   3. How do students who leave charter schools to attend public schools adjust? Are they behind or are they ahead of their peers?
   4. Do any of the charter schools have mandated religious or unique interest training and, if so, should that be funded with tax dollars?
   5. Have charter schools prompted public schools to improve their course offerings and teaching standards? Or, because of pared back budgets, are they offering less learning opportunities and reducing their teaching expectations?
   6. Has the loss of students to charter schools caused public schools to be less cost effective? If the expense for teaching a course averaged $100 per pupil, does the reduction of students now make the course financially prohibitive to offer? 
   7. Should local elected officials and/or the local voters have a voice in whether to use tax dollars to fund charter schools in their districts?
   This would be an interesting story for some enterprising reporter. And the public has a right to know the answers.
   
   

Thursday, January 17, 2013

And here comes the judge...again


    Attorneys representing the Town of Kill Devil Hills have asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to place sanctions against attorneys representing Dare County Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett. Representing the judge are Kevin Rust and Norm Shearin of the Raleigh office of the Norfolk-based firm of Vandeventer and Black. 
    [The earlier version of this post stated that the sanctions, if granted, would go against the judge. That was incorrect.]
   The judge first sought a hearing before the North Carolina Court of Appeals in reference to its opinion handed down on Oct. 16 that vacated an order issued by Superior Court Judge Milton F. Fitch, 7B Judicial District. Although not the focus of the appeal, the court also vacated an earlier order issued by Tillett. Both orders were issued against the town. 
    In seeking the hearing, it was argued that although not a party to the suit, because the Appeals Court had vacated his order and because the Judicial Standards Commission may be investigating his actions related to the Kill Devil Hills Police Department, the judge was entitled to a hearing.
    The Appeals Court refused Tillett's request. He was not a party of the original case.
   In response, on Dec. 20, a petition was filed on Tillett's behalf by his attorneys with the Supreme Court. 
   The town responded to the petition through its attorneys in the matter, Dan Hartzog, Dan Hartzog, Jr. and Jaye E. Bingham-Hinch of the Raleigh firm of Cranfill, Sumner and Hartzog. 
   The attorneys argued that Tillett had no standing to enter the suit at this point and noted that he had remained silent up until that point.
    And now, Tillett's attorneys, have filed a response to the town's response although Supreme Court rules do not allow such filings.
    The town's attorneys have responded by asking that the Supreme Court place impose sanctions against the attorneys for filing frivolous actions and for violating the court's rules.
    The most recent filing on behalf of Tillett is linked here.
    The request for sanctions is linked here.
    For more on the background of the case and and links to previous filings, scroll down to earlier related blogs on this site titled "Oh, what a tangled web... " and "Top 10 Stories of 2013 - No. 1."
   

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Top 10 Stories of 2013 - No. 3

    At the end of the year, publications often do a recap of what they deem to be the biggest stories of that calendar year. But I dance to a different drummer so below the reader will find the first three potential Top 10 stories I would like to read in 2013. To keep the posts from being too long, I am posting them separately over several weeks. They will not appear in any particular order - it isn't possible to predict the impact of stories until all the facts are known so there is no way of predicting which will prompt the most impact and/or interest.
   So here we go...

2013 Story No. 3

    According to a story posted on the N&O website on Jan. 13, the North Carolina Board of Transportation has voted to increase fees on ferries currently charging vehicles and to add tolls to several routes that have been free. These new taxes become effective on July 1.
    The link to the story is: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/01/12/2602599/board-of-transportation-members.html
    The only ferries not to come under the new toll rates on July 1, are the Hatteras-Ocracoke route and the Currituck-Knotts Island route. Some board members, states the story, objected to not charging tolls on the two exempted routes because the Hatteras-Ocracoke route is the most heavily used in the state. If it also was taxed, it would allow reducing the tolls on the other ferries, they argued.
    Ocracoke Island is accessible only by ferry - either the taxed ferry from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter on the mainland or via Hatteras Island ferry which is free. If the Hatteras-Ocracoke route is tolled, there will be no free way to access the island. Ocracoke residents would have to pay to access any other part of the state. 
    The ferry trip from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter - the county seat for Hyde County that includes the island - takes about 2.5 hours one way. The only "free" transportation corridor is via Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, then NC 12 north to Whalebone Junction, west on US 64 to US 264 in Manns Harbor, and then approximately two hours to the county courthouse for a total of about 6 hours.
   An interesting story about this issue would answer the following questions:
    1. Does State law and/or the North Carolina Constitution guarantee that the public can move freely throughout the state? If so, how would that apply to Ocracoke islanders if use of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry was taxed, thus removing the only free access to the island?
    2. Is there any location in the state that can be accessed only by paying a tax? Where?
    3. Taxes on the Ocracoke-Swan Quarter and Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferries will be more than doubled beginning on July 1. How will that affect the cost of supplies and services provided to the island from the mainland? Who will be the hardest hit by this increase?
    4. Will the increased tax pull money out of the local economy? If so, will this impact small businesses, particularly those that remain open in the winter when there is little tourism?
    5. If the island's economy is negatively impacted, will there be a secondary impact on other state agencies' budgets? If a resident has to go to the mainland for medical services on a regular basis, will the increased cost discourage them from seeking the healthcare they need? 
    6.Will the added cost of transportation equate to a larger number of residents getting increased financial help and food stamps from Social Services and higher reimbursements from Medicaid? Will other government agencies have a direct cost by having to pay the tax for their vehicles/passengers? 
    7. The stated goal of raising the taxes is to collect an additional $5 million with which to partially fund the ferry division. Other taxes already in place - such as the gas tax - are used to fund the Department of Transportation of which the Ferry Division is a part of. Is there a goal of tolling all transportation corridors across the state to offset the cost of maintaining roads, highways and bridges? 
    8. If not, why are these water transportation routes that are part of the State system being taxed?
    9. Before passage of the increased and new taxes, was there an economic impact study done to identify potential unintended consequences?
    10. If, at a later date, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry route is taxed, how will that affect businesses who rely on employees who use the ferry to travel from home to work? 
    11. Will the General Assembly take up this issue when it convenes? How do these taxes fit into the promise of less taxes so that there can be more economic growth?
    12. Frequently, the fact that the coast depends on tourism is used to try to argue that not all those being taxed are residents. But, in this case, all the residents are being taxed regardless of how many tourists use the ferries. Does it really make a difference who pays a tax?
    Please let me know if you find this story - I'm anxious to read the answers.
    



Sunday, January 6, 2013

Top 10 stories of 2013 - No. 2


  At the end of the year, publications often do a recap of what they deem to be the biggest stories of that calendar year. But I dance to a different drummer so below the reader will find the first two potential Top 10 stories I would like to read in 2013. To keep the posts from being too long, I will post them separately over the next several days. They will not appear in any particular order - it isn't possible to predict the impact of stories until all the facts are known so there is no way of predicting which will prompt the most impact and/or interest.
   So here we go...

2013 Story No. 2

   Many news outlets are increasingly using press releases on which to base stories without looking at the underlying data and/or seeking out other information.  Often the releases are from special interest groups that have a fixed position and their own agendas.  
   I began my writing career as a ghost writer for scientists and learned early in the process that "confounders" can completely negate the validity of the research if not acknowledged and taken into consideration when trying to reach a defensible conclusion.
    An excellent example of how ignoring confounders can affect journalism can be found in this editorial that recently appeared in the Virginian Pilot:  
    http://hamptonroads.com/2013/01/orv-crisis-didnt-come
    The editorial, based on an earlier news story in that publication, proclaimed that there has been no crisis on Hatteras Island due to beach access restrictions. And, in fact, it states that 2012 has proven to be a banner year for the Outer Banks - according to occupancy tax collections and attraction visitation statistics.
    The occupancy tax collection totals by district can be found at this link.
    The county-wide occupancy tax collection totals by year are available at this link.
    Attraction visitation statistics can be accessed at this link.
    It would be refreshing to see them go back to the drawing board and actually look at and analyze the data, develop an understanding of what it means, and poke around a bit to find the confounders. I don't think it is possible to quantify what the economic impact has been to Hatteras Island - because there are too many confounders. And I also think that a review and further research might not result in proclaiming that the Outer Banks had a record-setting number of visitors. I do think that there is a very good story to be found but they will have to look for it.
    Here are some questions I'd like to see them ask:
    1. What is an occupancy tax and exactly what is it charged against?
    2. Comparing year-to-year totals of tax collected, how are the reports adjusted to keep an apples-to-apples basis? Are increases in rental rates accounted for? Are new services provided that increase the amount of tax paid by the renter noted? 
    4. How is it possible to take a tax collection total and translate it into the number of actual visitors?
    5. In the past five or six years, have any IRS rulings changed what the tax is applied against and thus had a major impact on the total collected?
    6. Attraction visitation statistics are gathered in a wide assortment of ways by the reporting venues. The National Park Service uses a traffic counter to collect information about how many cars drive through the Seashore which begins near Whalebone Junction in Nags Head and ends on Ocracoke Island, south of Hatteras Island. How does the traffic count separate vehicles driving back and forth to work, supply trucks delivering merchandise and DOT vehicles from those driven by tourists?
    7. Is the traffic count reflective of tourists visiting the Seashore or simply of the number of vehicles using NC 12? How many vehicles go to destinations such as Coquina Beach and Bodie Island Lighthouse which are north of Oregon Inlet? How many cross Bonner Bridge to go only as far as Pea Island? How many to Hatteras Island? How many to Ocracoke Island?
    8. Why don't the statistics for Cape Hatteras Lighthouse correlate with the increases/decreases in the traffic count?
    9. What is the  unemployment rate since 2007 to present for Dare County for the month of October? What is the rate for that same period north of Oregon Inlet? South of Oregon Inlet?
    10 What is the total annual amount of food stamps issued in Dare County from 2007 to present date? North of the Oregon Inlet? South of Oregon Inlet? 
    11. When were tourists evacuated off Hatteras Island before Hurricane Irene?
    12. When was access via NC 12  to the island opened to the public after the hurricane?
    13. Where did all the visitors listed as going to the seashore come from in September and October 2011 since most of NC 12 south of the inlet was closed to the public?
    14. In November 2011, there was an influx of visitors reported as going to the Seashore. Was this unusual increase in traffic on NC 12 due to tourists flooding into the area to see the destruction? Or were a large number of the visitors employees of FEMA and other agencies who went in to help with relief and recovery efforts? Could some of the travelers have been insurance adjusters who had waited for the road to open because they didn't want to spend several hours riding ferries which provided transportation while the road was closed? And was there an usual amount of construction crews and materials going into the area?
    The answers to these questions are all obtainable - just takes a real newsperson to search them out.
    

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top 10 stories of 2013 - No. 1

    At the end of the year, publications often do a recap of what they deem to be the biggest stories of that calendar year. But I dance to a different drummer so below I've posted the first of what potential Top 10 stories I would like to read in 2013. To keep the blog from being too long, I will post them separately over the next several days. They will not appear in any particular order - it isn't possible to predict the impact of stories until all the facts are known so there is no way of predicting which will prompt the most impact and/or interest.
   So here we go...

2013 Story No. 1

    The North Carolina Court of Appeals turned down Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett's request for a second hearing about Kill Devil Hills' appeal of an order issued by Judge Toby Fitch which, if upheld, would have allowed police officers to take their employment complaints directly to Tillett.
    In his petition to the COA, the judge, via his attorneys, argued that because the Court of Appeals mentioned that Tillett didn't have authority to issue an earlier order demanding that the town provide copies of several personnel files, that he has been aggrieved and deserves an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
   In his filing with the COA, it was stated that Tillett was seeking review, in part, because the Judicial Standards Commission - the body that oversees and, when applicable, disciplines judges for bad behavior - might be investigating Tillett's actions taken against the Kill Devil Hills Police Department and other town officials.
    The COA in its ruling noted that there was no hearing, charges or existing court case on which to base the orders - Fitch's or Tillett's. Now, denied a hearing by the Court of Appeals, Tillett's attorneys have petitioned the NC Supreme Court to review the COA's refusal to allow another hearing so that Tillett can speak.
   Tillett's filing with the Supreme Court can be found at this link.
   The Town's response to the Supreme Court filing can be accessed at this link.
   Clearly, not all of this story has filtered to the surface. Let's hope that in the coming year, readers will have an opportunity to read a story or stories that elaborates on these issues:
   1. What prompted the police officers to file complaints against the police chief with Judge Tillett? How did they know that they could take such action?
   2. How did the complaining police officers choose the attorney who represented them in their failed lawsuit against the town and police chief? Who and how was the attorney paid?
   3. How did the complaining police officers choose the attorney who represented them in their failed attempt to have District Attorney Frank Parrish removed from office? Who and or how was the attorney paid?
   4. In addition to the attempt to remove him from office, were there other actions or threats made against the district attorney? If so, what were they and by whom were they made?
   5. How did the complaining police officers choose the attorney who represented them in their failed attempt to have Superior Court Judge Alma Hinton disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission after she determined that there was no valid reason to remove the district attorney from office? Who and/or how was the attorney paid?
   6. After issuing his order that would have allowed all police department personnel complaints to go directly to Judge Tillett, why did Judge Fitch say he did not have jurisdiction over the matter? Why did Fitch sign the order when there was no existing case and it was outside his judicial district? Why didn't he file a response to the Town's appeal to the Court of Appeals?
   It's obvious that the entire story about this matter has not been made public. Let's hope all the facts surface this year so that those who are guiltless have their reputations cleared and those with ulterior motives have a bright light shone on them. The public deserves no less and the press has a responsibility to keep digging until they hit the bottom of the trash heap.