Council adopts higher harbor fees
The Harbor Management Commission budget adopted this week by a 4-1 vote of the Jamestown Town Council includes a 24 percent jump in mooring fees and a substantial increase in the charges for municipal services performed for harbor operations. Many in the crowded chamber opposed the increases, but most of the councilors felt the proposed budget was reasonable.
The Council, which met on March 7, was facing a March 15 deadline for the adoption of an operating budget for the Harbor Commission. The proposal before the councilors was a revised version of a budget passed by the Commission in December.
The Commission revised, and passed, its $210,806 budget proposal during a March 1 meeting. Councilor Ellen Winsor questioned the validity of the Commission’s vote because the agenda for the meeting had been advertised only as “2011-12,” which falls short of the information required under Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Law.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that the announcement was incomplete because of a clerical error. During the meeting, he said, “The issue is somewhat moot” because “the Commission adopted the budget and fee hikes at its December meeting, and the tweaking they did during their [March 1] meeting didn’t have any material impacts.”
Keiser added that the Commission formally adopted the minutes of the December meeting at its March 1 session, “so they have taken all the procedural steps required of them.”
In his lengthy remarks to Keiser and the councilors, Conanicut Marine Services owner Bill Munger disagreed, saying, “I regret that we’ve lost so much openness and transparency over the last couple of weeks. We only learned of the changes to the budget this evening, and they have been weighing heavily on many of us.”
The debate over Harbor Commission expenditures is far from over because the revised Harbor Management Plan and Harbor Ordinance have not been adopted. The draft ordinance is particularly controversial because it includes a proposal to increase the allocation of mooring fees for infrastructure funding.
Currently, the maximum percentage of mooring fees that may be used for harbor projects is 10 percent. The revised ordinance would require marinas to deposit 50 percent of non-resident mooring fees, wait-list fees, outhaul fees, and one-half of commercial mooring fees into a segregated infrastructure account.
The budget adopted this week is based on the existing, 10 percent formula. The most signifi- cant revision to the budget is the increase in administrative support fees for financial management, GIS services, and public works assistance provided by the town.
Previously, the town was charging back $2,500 a year to the Commission; however, starting in fiscal year 2011-12, the town will charge back $15,000. Munger described the increase as “disturbing” and argued that administrative expenses “are not totally a mooring obligation.”
Keiser strongly defended the charge-back increase, explaining that he and Financial Director Tina Collins determined that “$2,500 was not even close to the value of the services provided by the town. We ran cost-accounting analyses of the work performed by the town engineer, and it turns out he spends about 40 hours [a year] on harbor projects. DPW crews routinely do harbor work. The floating docks were built in the highway barn. So, it’s easy to justify the $15,000 charge-back. It’s supported by facts.”
Munger was also critical of the increase in dock-maintenance expenditures, a line item that will increase from $17,000 this fiscal year to $35,000 during the next fiscal year.
The Commission spent $39,000 on dock maintenance during the previous fiscal year, “but it wasn’t all for maintenance; $30,000 of it went for construction costs,” Munger said. “To go to $35,000 in that line item is terribly fat.” Munger, however, devoted most of his comments to the fee increases: a 24 percent hike in mooringfees,anda5percenthike in outhaul and beach-permit fees.
Under the mooring-fee increases, the $3.35-per-foot rate for residents increases to $4.15; the $6.70 rate for non-residents increases to $8.15; and the $6.70 rate for commercial boats increases to $8.15. The $480 outhaul fee for recreational boats will increase to $500, and the $420 fee for commercial boats will increase to $430.
In response to assertions that the increases are modest, and will not put Jamestown marinas at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other marinas around the bay, Munger argued that the comparisons compiled by the town were flawed or disingenuous. For example, Munger said, Newport fees are much higher because “Newport charges by the pound – not the foot – and they have four [patrol] boats and 17 staff working two shifts.”
Munger also said, “The marine industry has been whacked horribly by the recession. We’re finding that we’re at a tipping point. You can rent a slip, in some instances, for not much more than a mooring at the other end of the bay. This [comparative] information is not gospel. There are many inaccuracies.”
Harbor Commission Chairman Mike de Angeli spoke briefly in defense of the budget, saying, among other things, that the $15,000 charge-back “was not unreasonable. We should have raised it years ago.” He also questioned the accuracy of Munger’s assertions. For example, he acknowledged that Bristol includes a pump-out service as part of a fee, which is 35 percent less than the Jamestown fee. However, de Angeli told Munger, “You’re providing a pump-out service and you’re charging a fee for it [in addition to mooring fees].”
Jamestown Boat Yard owner Steve Devoe said, “During last Tuesday’s meeting, I had the impression that we didn’t need a budget to decide on the fees. This budget [suggests] that we’ll raise the fees by 24 percent so we’re in line with other communities, and we’ll figure out how to spend the [extra revenue] later. If we’re going to a fee-based, bottom-up budget, we need to give it a better try.”
Councilor Bill Murphy said he was “concerned about the accusations of a lack of transparency. I think the town has been open. All the money and expenditures have been accounted for, and I think the budget is understated. There are things missing, such as the Ft. Getty pier and a reserve account for things like the seawall damage.”
Councilor Bob Bowen said he did not agree that “we are going to a market-based assessment,” and pointed out that “these adjustments have been under discussion for the past year. This budget is very reasonable.”
Winsor, who voted against the budget, said the proposal lacks a five-year capital plan or an “ownership” list assigning responsibility for harbor-related structures to the town or the Commission. She also asserted that the budget process had become “chaotic” because the town had “failed to provide the financial basis for the increases up front.”
Councilor Bill Murphy dismissed Winsor’s statements as an “attack,” adding that the remarks she directed “to the town administrator and the volunteers serving on the Harbor Commission [were] inappropriate.”
Councilor Mike White expressed some reservations about the possibility of “pricing Jamestown out of the [mooring] market” However, he added that “the ordinance says we have to adopt a budget by March 15, and we can’t waive [the vote].”
Council President Mike Schnack said, “I don’t see anything extravagant about this budget. Our rates are pretty low and will still be pretty low.”