Island council awards contract for Port Royal beach renourishment, OKs borrowing

August 2, 2011 

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After months of permitting delays, work to rebuild the beach at Hilton Head Island's heel can begin as soon as October.

Town Council voted unanimously at its Tuesday meeting to award a nearly $8.2 million contract to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company to pump about a million cubic yards of sand onto a mile-long stretch of beach at Port Royal Plantation.

A groin also will be built to prevent sand from washing away and allow it to accrue along the shore. A separate contract will be pursued for that work, town manager Steve Riley said.

Work was to begin in January, but delays in obtaining a state permit for the project postponed construction.

Instead, work will begin as early as Oct. 9, according to a proposed schedule. The project is expected to be completed by Dec. 22.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires the town to be finished with the work by May 1, 2012.

Council also voted unanimously on first reading of an ordinance to borrow up to $11 million to pay for the project. That money would be repaid over six to seven years with expected revenue from beach preservation fees and by using a $1 million state grant.

The work is needed to combat a decade of erosion that has claimed about 100 feet of beachfront per year. Left unchecked, oceanfront property could be threatened, town officials say.

IN OTHER BUSINESS:

Town Council voted unanimously on first reading of an ordinance to borrow more than $15 million against future hospitality taxes to pay for fire & rescue operations, including current and future costs to replace fire stations, ambulances, engines and other apparatus.

About $11 million in existing debt would also be refinanced at lower interests, should the savings warrant such a move.

Councilman George Williams. Jr. questioned whether the town should be borrowing such large amounts against future revenue.

"Are we getting ahead of ourselves on cash flow and how will hospitality taxes pay for that?" Williams asked.

A representative of the McNair Law Firm, the town's bond counsel, advised council it is more cost effective to borrow now since interest rates are low and some expenditures have already been made.

Council had earlier approved measures intended to control the town's borrowing costs by pledging the use of the taxes paid by tourists to repay the special obligation bonds.

Previously, the town had used a different vehicle for issuing debt, but state law has since changed to allow use of what's been seen by financial advisers as a more secure investment.

"It's a dedicated revenue stream, therefore it's considered a safer bond to buy and there's less risk to investors of default," said town finance director Susan Simmons. "This will give us better interest rates, lowering our borrowing cost."

All three national bond rating agencies recently affirmed Hilton Head's sterling bond ratings and ratings outlook.

Moody's rated the town Aaa, the same as the state and federal government.

Fitch Ratings and Standards & Poor's issued AA ratings.

The town's debt burden remains manageable, as do future capital needs and borrowing plans, and outstanding debt is repaid rapidly, according to Fitch Ratings.

"Despite its tourism dependence, the town's economy has historically demonstrated resilience during periods of economic stress, with minimal impact on financial operations," according to a July 6 report.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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On Hilton Head's heel, sand continues to be lost to nature, permit delays: April 16, 2011

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