Camping at Fort Getty gets more expensive
Campers returning to Fort Getty this summer will pay more for a seasonal pass, the Town Council decided Monday.
The panel voted unanimously to reduce the number of campground sites from 105 to 84 and raise the price from $3,700 to $4,500 per season. This means if all 84 RV spots are occupied, the town will collect $378,000 annually from Fort Getty user fees, according to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser. Keiser suggested the $4,500 fee to maintain the $360,000 projected in the municipal budget from the Fort Getty campground, despite lost revenues due to the decision to cut down the number of campground sites.
“I believe this margin is neces- sary to account for uncertainties that may result from changes in the campground and fees,” said Keiser.
Also on Monday, councilors shortened the camping season from 19 weeks to 17 weeks to honor the demand from residents for full access to the park in September. Finally, they agreed to protect Jamestown residents from being among the displaced campers losing access to Fort Getty.
This season, 15 campers will be displaced and only 12 can be guaranteed a replacement campground site. Three are “in danger of not returning,” Keiser said, comparing the situation to a game of musical chairs. He suggested using seniority to allocate the available space after the Jamestown residents have been accommodated.
More changes are in the offing in future years, he indicated, with the likelihood of shortening the season to 16 weeks in 2014.
On advice from Keiser, the council opted to raise the price by 21 percent, and not charge the campers the full $4,700 market value. The market value was based on the price of the campground at Sachuest Point in Middletown.
Keiser initially argued against shortening the season and raising prices simultaneously. The two changes, he said, would be “too disruptive” and might reduce demand.
But after discussion and hearing comments from residents, Keiser indicated he did not think reducing the season by two weeks would cost the town revenues due to campers deciding to abandon Fort Getty. Keiser based his view on conversations with the camp director at Sachuest Point, where the waiting list is 10 years long and all the campers returned after prices went up 25 percent. The information suggests the Fort Getty campers essentially have no alternative to Jamestown if they wish to vacation in the area. But, added Keiser, no one can be sure about the reaction until the changes go into effect. “It’s trial and error,” he said.
According to Keiser, if the demand falls off, the town can go back to renting transient campground sites or offer space to people on the waiting list.
The councilors considered the Fort Getty question during the unfi nished business section of their agenda. They directed Keiser to prepare a letter to the campers to announce the new rate and other changes at the campground. At its next session on Jan. 7, the panel will review the letter and may also consider changes to campground rules and enforcement.
Previously, the council had voted to reduce the campground footprint by eliminating 15 sites on the eastern edge of the park along Fort Getty Road. At the Dec. 10 meeting, the councilors also asked the staff to review the options to relocate most of those displaced seasonal campers to a different section of the campground that had been rented to transient campers. Most of the $60-per-day transient spaces will be converted to seasonal use under the new configuration.
“In 2013, transient use will be offered only after seasonal demand has been satisfied,” Keiser said.
Other changes include consolidating campground sites in an inner row of the second most western section. Ten of the sites had been used for transients because of their small size and lack of water views. The new configuration reduces the number of sites in that area from 15 to 11 and enlarges the dimensions to 42-by-55 feet.
Finally, after the 15 eastern sites facing Fort Getty Road have been removed, the plan calls for merging three sites into one on the new eastern-most row. That consolidation will create the space to make 16 sites of uniform width, to measure 31-feet wide by 70-feet long.
Keiser said he had met with directors of several departments to discuss Fort Getty campground layout, fees and operations, and could make a recommendation about the “best course of action” for the 2013 season.
But before Keiser could present his ideas, Patrick Bolger asked to speak in open forum. Bolger told councilors he preferred not to wait until Keiser delivered his slide presentation because the discussion he had impacted the presentation. He said he would address “setting rates” for assets leased from the town.
Bolger said the town leaders were, in effect, cheating taxpayers by setting lease rates far below market value for town assets like the campground, golf course and harbor attractions, including the two boat basins.
“The assets belong to the people,” Bolger said, adding that the majority of town assets are leased “significantly” under market value.
“You are cheating the taxpayer,” he said. “I would suggest you shouldn’t do that.”
Bolger said the council should use market value as the criteria if it is going to lease assets, and recommended the council should direct the staff to follow those instructions.
“If I am a mooring holder and I lease a space for a mooring, it costs me 75 cents a day,” he said. Bolger then gave other examples of underpriced leases. “If I’m a camper, I pay $27 a day for about 140 days.” He also mentioned that East Ferry is under commercial lease for “about $5 a day,” and the town is leasing dockage at Fort Wetherill for a little less than $4 a day.
“I can assure you,” said Bolger, who is also a member of the Harbor Commission, “you cannot find dockage anywhere in Narragansett Bay for $3.75 a day, but you approved those rates when you approved the leases. You rent the pavilion for $300 a day.” By comparison, he said, the school gym would cost $1,000 a day.
“So you can see the disparity within the town depending on who is managing,” he said. “In order to be fair, you ought to set market value and market rate.” Bolger said that town staffers who set lease prices should have to justify those rates to the council.
Councilor Mary Meagher responded. “It isn’t necessary we would charge market rates,” she said, but added that the council should acknowledge that market rates exist.
Meagher said the council is scheduling a workshop in January to take a look at all leased facilities so a town-wide policy can be established.
But Bolger insisted on the importance of using fair market value to set a price.
“I disagree with you,” he shot back. “You charge me market value as a taxpayer every year.” He questioned why the councilors would not get the best deal for the taxpayer when leasing town assets. Bolger estimated 85 people are on the waiting list for spaces at the campground. Given the laws of supply and demand, he said, the councilors had no reason to keep the prices low.
Said Keiser, “There are other factors besides highest economic value.” For example, if councilors set mooring fees too high, then people of modest means would not have access.
“So there is some judgment call,” Keiser said.
Bolger replied by saying that 75 cents is less than a half a cup of coffee.