2013-10-24 / Front Page

Commissioners against spending arrangement

Board says it shouldn’t pay for assets unrelated to waterfront access
By Margo Sullivan

For the time being, the Harbor Commission will continue contributing $45,000 annually for five years to pay for seawall repairs at East Ferry. However, the commissioners have asked the Town Council to reconsider the arrangement.

At a special meeting between the two boards on Monday, Harbor Chairman Michael de Angeli explained why he believes the prior council’s decision erred both as a policy and a practical matter.

As a practical matter, the expense is costing the Harbor Commission about 25 percent of its budget, he said. Pending the official audit, de Angeli says harbor revenues appear to have done well this year, but the commission needs a rainy-day fund to pay for damage from disasters like Hurricane Sandy. As a policy, he said, it’s a bad decision for the town to take waterfront money for infrastructure repairs that essentially protect the roads.

Council President Kristine Trocki indicated she would hesitate to overturn the previous council’s decision. However, she agreed to reopen the discussion in January when the budget talks begin. Meanwhile, Trocki asked the Harbor Commission about a list of waterfront assets that Town Engineer Michael Gray compiled in 2012. The list identifies assets that the commission manages. It is her understanding that the waterfront commission has never voted to adopt the list, Trocki said.

“I’m confused about the repairs,” she said.

Harbor Commissioner Larry Eichler, who spearheads the commission’s work on facilities, said a vote was never taken. The prior council decided the list was moot when it ordered the commissioners to pay half of the repair costs for the East Ferry and Racquet Road seawalls, assets that had not been included on the list.

Eichler said the commissioners and Gray had worked diligently to identify the waterfront assets and had agreed on three categories: town-maintained facilities, harbormaintained facilities and shared facilities.

Trocki said she would like to discuss the list because she could envision disputes arising with future councils.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said the issue about paying for the East Ferry seawall and other projects was a policy decision and was not addressed in the new harbor ordinance. He wanted to make the point clear because the council was preparing to vote on the revised ordinance.

“The ordinance is not being amended with regard to the budgeting issue,” he said. “That is a separate policy issue that the Town Council deals with at budget season.”

Ruggiero said the wording leaves the option open for the council not to charge the Harbor Commission for such projects in the future.

“Procedurally, it is really for fiscal year 2014,” Trocki said.

“Yes, when you start to compose your budget,” Ruggiero replied.

Councilor Mary Meagher said last year, when the harbor commissioners asked the council to reconsider the charge for the East Ferry seawall, the council was “in the midst of the budget” and there wasn’t time to reassess the situation. This year, the Harbor Commission was invited to discuss the issue ahead of time.

“So you see this as road repair?” Meagher asked de Angeli.

“The job of our commission is essentially to create access to the water,” he said.

The harbor office receives revenues from leases and mooring fees.

“The lease money doesn’t cover the repairs we have to make,” he said. “We have to make sure the operating budget will cover the costs.”

According to de Angeli, the assessment for the East Ferry seawall had amounted to “a real millstone to put around our neck.” Meanwhile, the commission pays for all repairs to boat ramps and picked up 100 percent of the bill for the Racquet Road repairs.

Councilor Blake Dickinson said access to the waterfront is supposed to be for everyone and not just boaters. Wouldn’t walking along the seawall constitute access, he asked.

“Is it really a water asset?” de Angeli replied. “If you didn’t repair the seawall, the road would fall away.”

Trocki said she thought that was why the prior council decided to ask the harbor commissioners for half the repair cost.

“We just felt it was a bit of a stretch,” de Angeli said. “It’s a dangerous precedent, too.”

He said it could open the door for increased mooring fees that would ultimately go into the general fund and pay for requests such as police cruisers.

Moreover, the harbor commissioners do pay for assets that give people access to the water, whether or not they own boats. For example, the Harbor Commission pays to maintain the woodpile pier, de Angeli said.

At the special meeting, the councilors and commissioners also discussed the revised harbor ordinance. They agreed to hold a public hearing in December to discuss the changes. As de Angeli explained, the Coastal Resources Management Council required the changes, and most were minor. The commissioners had been required to add wording to state that nonresidents could apply for moorings in the harbor and in the right-of-ways. This provision might upset people in the affected neighborhoods, he said, but it was really a moot point because all the moorings are already in use and there are no plans to add more.

Finally, de Angeli reported the Harbor Commission has not taken any position on the Conanicut Marine expansion because owner Bill Munger has not settled on a plan yet. The state’s coastal council has the jurisdiction. The harbor commissioners could give an advisory opinion but do not have any authority in the outcome. He suggested turning the discussion over to Munger.

Munger said he expected to finalize the plans by December. If the expansion is approved, he promised to work with mooring holders who will be displaced.

Resident Gary Parker, however, said he was unhappy about the expansion. His mooring has been in the same location for 35 years, and he does not want it moved. His maintenance costs will be higher in a new location, he said.

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