KELLY, NC (WECT) - With only 15 weeks until the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season, the clock is ticking for the small community of Kelly, as officials and community leaders look at what can be done about the White Oak Dike.
A WECT investigation shows the dike fell into serious disrepair over the last few decades, with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) estimating the real decline began in the late 1990s. During Hurricane Florence, it breached in six to eight places.
The largest hurdle to fixing it, according to the Kelly Water Dike and Drainage District committee and Bladen County officials, is the cost. The county is considering bringing back an old tax to try to raise the funds to make repairs, but there are concerns even that wouldn’t be enough.
Committee member Charles Russ said the cost of fixing the dike is in the tens of millions, and could be up to $30 million.
As of Nov. 2018, the dike district had just $35,203 in the bank.
"I get the wrath of everybody when they come in the store asking ‘when are we going to do something? Why haven’t we doing something?’ We just don’t have the money to do anything with it right now,” Russ said.
Russ said the seeds of that money was what was left over from the reconstruction of the dike in the 1960s, and was supplemented by a tax levied in 1961.
When the Kelly Dike Committee was formed in 1961, it had the authority to levy from $0.01 per $100 of property valuation to $0.10 per $100.
The limited records available show the committee opted for the lowest option, and collected about $700 per year for four years — less than one third of the anticipated annual expenses to take care of the dike.
In 1960 when the decision was made to rehabilitate and improve the dike, the USACE estimated it would cost on average $2,500 per year to maintain it. Adjusted for inflation, that translates to roughly $21,400 today.
Russ said he isn’t sure why officials back then opted for the lower amount, or why the tax was stopped after only a few years. If the committee had chosen to do so, they could have collected up to $7,000 per year, based on an extrapolation of what they did bring in.
Russ said the committee is looking at reinstating the tax by July of this year. Correspondence between Bladen County officials and a legal team show that while the committee does not need the permission of the county commission to reinstate the tax, attorneys think it may be best for the commission to at least weigh in, given how long it’s been.
WECT has reached out to Bladen County officials for clarification on the tax being re-implemented, but so far there has been no response.
Additionally, even if the committee decides to levy the tax at its highest rate, there are only a handful of properties that would contribute.
The entire area protected by the levee has a combined property value of $12.8 million, and that was before the property damage from Hurricane Florence. At the highest rate, that could generate $12,800 each year.
However, not every property in Kelly is located within the Kelly Water Dike and Drainage District.
Needed work on the dike includes the removal of thousands of mature trees, the replacement of 12 to 20 foot sections of the structure due to damage from vehicles or the hurricane, and other major projects. And as inflation has risen, so have construction costs. What cost $299,160 to build in 1960 — about $2.4 million in today’s dollars — is now estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars to repair.
By comparison, Bladen County as a whole is only anticipated to bring in just $18.39 million in property tax revenue in 2019.
USACE chief of geotechnical and dam safety Mitch Hall said if the committee were able to come up with that amount of money and repair the dike, they might be brought back into the Corps’ set of active programs, but it won’t be easy.
“We don’t typically go back and allow them back in the program without them showing interest in repairing certain features of the project. In other words if there’s a good faith attempt to make those repairs,” he said. "We haven’t seen evidence of that in recent years and I think a lot of that has to do with funding and lack of funding on their part.”
Even if the USACE lets the White Oak Dike back in, that would only make it eligible for funding to pay for repairs for damage from future storms — not anything from Hurricane Florence.