Yesterday's N&O featured an article about the $25 million pier in Nag's Head that the state is financing, in spite of one of what we are told is a massive budget crisis.
"This pier is essentially an aquarium on piling, with live animal exhibits, a 16,000-square-foot pier house and wind turbines generating electricity.
The price tag is $25 million.
The project, at Whalebone, about 2.5 miles south of Nags Head, is drawing heat in North Carolina as an example of extravagant state spending at a time when the state doesn't have money to spare. The fact that the pier sits in the district of powerful Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, adds fuel to the political fire.
Critics have deployed a television ad and mass e-mails bashing the pier, saying it is a luxury the state can't afford when it is handing out pink slips to teachers and shutting down pieces of the state's health care services."
Defenders of the Pier, including Basnight, are claiming the Pier has no place in the current debate surrounding the state's budget situation.
While the pier looks like an easy target, the facts don't quite make it the glowing example of misplaced spending that critics suggest.
No money from this year's state budget will be used, and large chunks of the funding were earmarked for the pier or similar projects well before the recession kicked in.
A couple of comments about these claims. First, why is money being earmarked for such projects even during good economic times? Wouldn't it be a better idea to have set that money aside to be available during the recession? I bet school teachers and social service providers would love to have a reserve to draw upon right about now, don't you?
Secondly, the claim that "no money from this year's state budget will be used" is misleading. Technically, there is no direct appropriation for the pier in this year's budget. But alas, this is a state government budget we are talking about, so the story isn't quite so simple.
The pier is actually a project falling under the umbrella of the N.C. Aquariums. There are two funding sources used to finance the aquariums – a "special fund" and General Fund appropriations. The special fund is financed through admission receipts and private donations for the aquariums, and pays for a share of the aquariums' operating expenses, repairs and debt service. The General Fund appropriations come from your tax dollars, and cover the rest of the aquariums' operating expenses. Funding from the Pier is coming from the aquarium's "special fund" finances, so technically no General Fund appropriation is required. But taking money from the special fund to spend on the Pier means less money available to fund the aquariums' operating expenses; meaning the taxpayers (via the General Fund) will pick up the difference.
Indeed, roughly $8 million in tax dollars are spent to subsidize aquarium operating expenses – a number that is larger because of the money being diverted to the Pier. Defenders of the Pier to Nowhere can frame it however they want, but there is no escaping the fact that the taxpayers will be paying the tab for this boondoggle.