Harbor debate heats up at workshop
A public hearing on proposed updates to the Jamestown Harbor Ordinance won’t be held for at least a month, but the strong turnout at this week’s Town Council workshop demonstrated that many islanders are tracking the revisions with great interest and, as a letter to the Council indicates, great concern.
The workshop on the revisions, which have been proposed by the Harbor Commission, was held on Jan. 3. Because the workshop was intended to inform the Council, the public, with one notable exception, did not have an opportunity to address the councilors.
Council President Mike Schnack said the workshop was only intended “to get an idea of the changes and their rationale. The next step will be holding a public hearing on them.” The most significant of the proposed revisions would allocate a larger percentage of mooring fees, along with other revenue, to infrastructure projects.
Currently, the maximum percentage of mooring fees that may be used for harbor work is 10 percent. Under one of the proposed revisions, the funding available for this work would increase substantially by requiring marinas to deposit one-half of non-resident mooring fees, wait-list fees, out- haul fees, and one-half of commercial mooring fees into a segregated infrastructure account.
The commission has also recommended an increase in the mooring fees. The increase can only be enacted if proposed and approved by the Town Council. If the Council enacts the recommendation, the $3.35-per-foot mooring fee paid by Jamestown residents would increase to $4 per foot, and the $6.70- per-foot fee paid by non-residents would increase to $8 per foot.
Regarding the necessity for the ordinance revisions, commission Chairman Mike de Angeli pointed out that “we can’t re-negotiate the leases [with the marinas], so we adopted language allowing us to use revenue from mooring fees [for infrastructure work].”
Commission Vice Chairman Andrew Kallfelz said, “Our budget is broken up into two pieces, and we have just one of the pieces to pay for major projects, such as $250,000 to repair the wood pile pier. But the ordinance poses a problem: it only allows us to use 10 percent of the mooring fees to feed the gorilla of infrastructure costs.
“In some years,” Kallfelz continued, “that money, along with $80,000 from commercial leases, is plenty. In many years, it’s not. So, we run out of money and we can’t fund critical safety repairs and improvements. But how do we fill the bucket for infrastructure work? You can ask the town to pay for it all, or erase the line separating our operating expenses and infrastructure costs, or you change the 10 percent to a higher number.”
Jamestown marina owners disagree, and they expressed their views in a letter addressed to the Council and the commission. The unsigned letter noted its sources as Clark Boat Yard, Conanicut Marina, Dutch Harbor Boat Yard and Jamestown Boat Yard.
Among many other things, the letter says “a review of the revenue history of the commercial leases will demonstrate that the lease revenues exceed expenditures on the leased properties. With a proper capital budget and proper expenditures, the commercial leases are sufficient to cover the cost of the infrastructure projects.”
The letter assails as “arbitrary, unreasonable and almost certainly unlawful” the higher mooring rate for non-residents, and argues that the marinas and their guests are self-sufficient because the marinas provide “access to the water and significant infrastructure for that access,” including “docks, piers, bulkheads, water, sewer, electric, and refuse [disposal]. The mooring guests of marinas, therefore, have the necessary infrastructure in place to use their moorings.”
The letter also asserts that the mooring fees used for the commission’s operating budget have generated annual surpluses, which are accumulating into “vast retained earnings.”
Although the Town Council and Harbor Commission didn’t debate the financial arguments in the letter, Schnack allowed a former commission chairman, Pat Bolger, to respond to allegations regarding an increase in mooring fees during his tenure as chairman. The letter says that the increase was the “proximate cause” of a 2002 lawsuit against the town, and that the town settled the litigation by rolling back the increase and agreeing “not to rely upon mooring fees to fund its infrastructure projects.”
Aside from demanding the identity of the letter’s author, Bolger delivered a measured rebuttal. He pointed out that the commission held eight public meetings before voting 8-2 in favor of the increase. He also said that the increase passed muster with the Coastal Resources Management Council as well as Jamestown Town Council.
Explaining the increase, Bolger said, “When I proposed the mooring rate change, the Harbor Commission was bankrupt. The Council was allocating a total of $50,000 a year to the commission.”
Bolger also noted that he has repeatedly requested access to the minutes of executive Council sessions, which were held before the mooring-fee rollback adopted by the Council. The minutes, he argues, would allow the town to see, once and for all, if there was a special deal underlying the settlement.
Schnack pointed out that if there had been an executive session in which such an agreement was discussed and supported by a majority of the councilors, the alleged agreement would be invalid and illegal because it was never voted on in a public meeting. Kallfelz pointed out that the 2002 litigation brought by the Concerned Boaters Group involved fee increases approaching 300 percent, whereas the latest recommendation proposes a far smaller increase.
Until Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero puts the tentatively revised ordinance into a proper legal format, a public hearing on the proposed revisions cannot be held. Ruggiero said that the legal drafting would require about three weeks to complete, after which the town will have to advertise the hearing at least two weeks in advance of the hearing date. That means the earliest the hearing could be held is mid-February, at which point all the stakeholders who sat silently through the workshop will have an opportunity to speak.