By BRAD RICH
Tideland News Writer
The federal dredge boat Merritt is scheduled to work in Bogue Inlet between June 19 and July 2, if necessary.
But, according to Carteret County Shore Protection Officer Rudi Rudolph, the work might not be needed. And if that’s the case, it might be wise to save the money, because this project would be the last, or at best the next-to-the-last one, possible using existing sources of money.
“Things look pretty good out there (Bogue Inlet) right now, to be quite honest,” Rudolph said Friday after looking at maps. “My guess is that the (U.S. Army) corps (of Engineers) is going to be in the neighborhood conducting other work at other projects (New Topsail Inlet) and would like to come clean things out for the summer. (But) we need to talk with them so we’re saving cash and not dredging for the sake of dredging: we don’t have money to burn.”
Money for the June dredging, if it’s done, will come from funds left over from previous funds allocated by the state Division of Water Resources and funds raised by the local governments around and near Bogue Inlet.
Rudolph was talking bucks in the wake of continuing uncertainty over potential legislation in the General Assembly. Two bills have been introduced to provide state funds for shallow-draft inlet dredging, and both have been controversial, for different reasons.
The first one, Senate Bill 58, was sponsored by Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, and introduced in February.
As initially drafted, it would have eliminated the flat fees of $15 now charged for registering a watercraft for a year and $40 for three years.
Instead, the legislation would have established a fee schedule based on vessel length. Under the proposal, boats less than 14 feet long would cost $15 for one year. The owner of a 14- to 19-foot boat would pay $25; 20 to 25 feet, $50; 26 to 40 feet, $100; and vessels longer than 40 feet, $150. Three-year registration periods would cost $45 for under 14 feet; $75 for 14 to 19 feet; $150 for 20 to 25 feet; $300 for 26 to 39; and $450 for 40 feet and longer. But those relatively hefty hikes in boat registration fees drew fire from boating groups.
And that bill was followed in April by legislation that envisioned another funding source – gas tax money – for dredging. But that provision was included in the even more controversial bill that would designate red drum, striped bass and speckled sea trout as game fish, off-limits for commercial harvest and sale.
The bill, House Bill 983, sponsored primarily by inland legislators, would allocate one-sixth of 1 percent of the money allocated to the highway fund from the state gasoline excise tax to help fund dredging.
But the game fish bill – which has been introduced several times in recent years and failed each time – quickly drew fierce opposition from commercial fishermen, who view game fish status for the three species as a threat to their livelihoods and a likely precursor to efforts to ban all commercial fishing nets from inshore waters.
So, Brown’s dredging bill has now been significantly altered. A Senate Finance Committee substitute, adopted by that panel on May 1, changes the proposed increases in vessel registration fees.
Under this version, the fees would be as follows: $25 for all vessels less than 26 feet in length; $50 for vessels 26 feet or more in length; $75 for a three-year registration for boats less than 26 feet in length; and $150 for a three-year registration for boats 26 feet or longer.
The WRC would be required to transfer on a quarterly basis 45 percent of each one-year registration fee and each three-year registration fee to the new shallow-draft navigation channel-dredging fund. Some of the registration money also goes to a fund the Wildlife Resources Commission uses for boating access projects.
In addition, the finance committee’s version of Brown’s original bill “borrows” – in Rudolph’s words – the gas tax provision from game fish bill, which is formally known as 2013 Fisheries Economic Development Act.
That provision in the new version of Brown’s bill states that, the dredging fund, in addition to a portion of the registration money, would receive “one-sixth of 1 percent of the amount allocated to … the Highway Fund … from the excise tax on motor fuel.”
“There was a lot of push-back from the boating groups on the registration fee” increases, Rudolph said Friday, and the changes in the fee increases are intended to placate those boaters.
Generally, that might give Brown’s bill more of a chance of getting through the legislature than the “Fisheries Economic Development Act,” which is considered by some to be – Rudolph’s word – “toxic” because of the game fish provision.
Carteret and Dare counties – home to a large proportion of the state’s dwindling number of commercial fishermen – are the epicenters of the opposition to the game fish proposal.
However it all shakes out in the General Assembly, Rudolph is still hoping there will be, for the first time ever, a dedicated funding source for shallow-draft inlet dredging.
Those inlets, including Bogue, are crucial to the local economies, because they are used by boaters of all types to get from the rivers and sounds to the ocean and back. And dredging, Rudolph said, costs about $13,000 a day.
“The idea is that there would a dedicated revenue source, which would get us out of the ups-and-downs of depending on the general fund” for state contributions to dredging projects, he said. “What has been happening is that we have done cost-sharing, with local governments paying half and the other half (except for federal money) coming through the state Division of Water Resources (which gets its money from the general fund.”
“This would be a very good step,” Rudolph said. “But the bill specifies a 50-50 split (between the local government funding and the dedicated state fund). What we would still like to see, if it might be possible, would be a 75-25 state-local split, or maybe 65-35.”
Under both the game fish bill and Brown’s dredge fund bill, a “‘shallow draft inlet’ means a waterway connection, with a maximum depth of 14 feet, between the Atlantic Ocean and a bay or the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, or a river entrance to the Atlantic through which tidal and other currents flow.”