Local Politics

Budget battle looms over beaches, human services

Posted June 15, 2009 6:36 p.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2009 7:22 a.m. EDT

— In times of state budget crisis, the choice between cuts and spending can get personal.

People try to protect what they care about, and that sets up a serious debate over priorities.

One such debate involves a $17 million plan to put sand on North Carolina's affluent Bald Head Island, which has a severely eroded coastline.

Bald Head Mayor Larry Lammert blames the exposed structures to help protect from erosion and 300 feet of lost beach on a state-sanctioned channel dredging. He said a village tax increase will cover most of the beach re-nourishment, but he wants the state to pay $5 million of the cost.

Funding for the beach project was included in budgets proposed by Gov. Bev Perdue and the state Senate. It is not in the House budget. Both chambers will reach a decision in conference negotiations over the next few weeks.

"I would love to see the $5 million stay in the state budget," Lammert said.

That is a point of contention when it comes to state tax dollars.

Bobbi Lewter-Mofield's son, Brendan, is nearly 3 years old. Born with Down syndrome, he learned to walk with the aid of a state-paid physical therapist and is learning to communicate through sign language and verbal training with a speech therapist.

Lewter-Mofield is worried that paying for sand comes at the cost of Brendan’s treatment.

"How can you put sand above these children?" Lewter-Mofield said.

"They would just say, 'Well hopefully, the child will get better,'" she said. "It's not going to happen. You need to get the services."

Advocates warn that more than 22,000 special-needs children could lose those therapies if projected cuts go through.

"There's no way to equate that – giving services to these children versus putting sand on a beach for people to go on vacation,?" Lewter-Mofield said.

But Lammert said human services can be funded by way of the tax revenue that comes from the tourists.

"It comes from the beaches," he said.

According to 2007 state Department of Commerce statistics, tourists spent more than $2.3 billion in North Carolina's coastal counties. That produced $107 million in state tax revenue.

Lammert credits the beaches.

"Every dollar that's invested in the beach turns $320 back in the form of taxes, sales taxes and revenue from tourism," he said. "It's a good investment in bad times to make an investment in the beach."

And it's not just Bald Head Island that's benefited.

In the past five years, nearly $50 million in state and federal tax dollars paid to restore dozens of North Carolina beaches. About $25 million worth are under consideration now.

Dr. Doug Rader, an oceans scientist with the North Carolina Environmental Defense Fund, argues that dredging and beach refill, not only damage natural ecosystems but are a waste of tax money.

"Moving sand around the beach costs tons and tons of money and is only temporary," he said. "Sand put on the beach today might be there tomorrow. It probably won't be there in a month."

"That's the only way we're going to protect this island," Lammert said.

And in state budget crisis, it could come down to choosing sand or services.