Council ponders fee hike at Old Harbor

For public wharfage during summer season
Thu, 03/07/2019 - 6:45pm
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A New Shoreham Town Councilor’s proposal to raise the transient dockage fee from $3 to $4.50 per foot per vessel at Old Harbor was debated by the council but met with disapproval by Harbormaster Steve Land.

Councilor Chris Willi proposed that a rate increase would equate to $55,395 seasonally for the months May through September.

The subject was discussed at the council’s March 4 meeting as part of Town Manager Ed Roberge’s 2020 budget fee schedule review. The fee schedule includes all of the permits and fees that are related to the town’s facilities, departments and operations. The fee schedule was unanimously approved (5-0) by the council at the meeting, but Willi’s suggestion was not. The topic will be explored further by the council, which seems in favor of imposing a gradual increase at some point.

After First Warden Ken Lacoste asked council members if they had suggestions regarding the fee schedule, Willi proposed raising rates, and implementing a tiered-based fee system during the summer season at Old Harbor. He suggested raising the transient dockage rate by $1.50 per foot, and noted that the island was not “competitive” with neighboring Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and other parts of Rhode Island, which charge an average of $6 per foot during July.

Willi also suggested raising other dockage fees at Old Harbor, including the transient day rate from $1.20 to $2 per foot, as well as the fee charged for commercial and charter slips. Willi said the funds accrued from the fees could be utilized to maintain the Old Harbor dock facility and infrastructure. Vessels docking at Old Harbor are within close proximity to Water Street and are provided with electricity, bathroom accommodations and garbage service. He noted that the town offers free anchorage at Old Harbor and New Harbor. Willi’s memo to the council can be found within the fiscal year 2020 fee schedule attached to item five of the council’s March 4 agenda on the town’s website.

“I think this will help us evaluate what those numbers would generate, with fees that could be used to pay down the debt service on future projects,” said Roberge, noting that the town could raise rates to offset budget costs for any upcoming projects that might require funding.

“I know Chris has brought this up before. Our rates aren’t competitive at Old Harbor, because they’re low, and we would like to keep it that way, unless we’re going to be in a position to offer more amenities,” said Roberge.

Councilor Sven Risom voiced concerns about “pushing people away,” and that if the increased fees don’t deter boaters from visiting Old Harbor, why wouldn’t the town want to implement the rate hike now.

“I’m not sure it’s going to push people away or not,” said Roberge. “And I’m not sure council’s going to include the projects that I might propose.” So, he said, it might be “presumptuous to raise the rates now.”

Willi said his argument “would be for our local competitors, such as the Boat Basin, for instance. They raised their rates drastically last year. It didn’t push anyone away.”

Upon hearing Willi’s remarks, Harbormaster Steve Land raised his hand for permission to speak. 

Land said he disagreed with the proposed rate increase. “When I got hired I was told that Old Harbor should be open to everybody. It is a conduit for people coming out to Block Island. We want it to be welcoming; we want it to be affordable; and we want to have it so that the money is spread amongst the islanders, such as at the restaurants, and the stores and shops, etc.”

“We are not a private marina,” said Land, who noted that there were a lot of complaints about the Block Island Boat Basin raising its rates. He said public marinas should be run differently than private operations. “If people want to go to a private marina, they go somewhere else,” he said.

“And to say we’re not being competitive; I don’t think is accurate,” he said. “We are making money. People stay for a week. They don’t just come for a weekend, because the rates are so cheap.”

Land said that the goal with charging the dockage fees was never to fund the town’s debt service, and that there would be “serious” ramifications if the rates get increased. “That wasn’t the idea of the transient slips at Old Harbor. It was to get people to the island. If you jack up the rate by $1.50 you’re going to lose a large population of people that really like Block Island.”

“Steve, when was the last time the rates were raised?” asked Lacoste.

“It was about three years ago,” said Land. “It went from $2.50 to $3.” He added: “There is no reason to raise the rates arbitrarily right now.”

Assistant Harbormaster Josh De Los Santos echoed Land’s sentiments, asserting that the clientele at Old Harbor is different that at New Harbor, which is more of a yachting crowd. “They’re probably not in the same tax bracket,” he said. “What they don’t spend on dockage allows them to take their family out to dinner.”

“Clearly, you can’t run the dockage for free at Old Harbor, but the good that it does for the business on the island I think outweighs the need to have it be a huge moneymaker,” said De Los Santos.

Second Warden André Boudreau said he agreed with both Land and Willi about the dockage rates at Old Harbor. He said he also agrees with Risom regarding the concern for “losing boaters” at Old Harbor. “It’s a different crowd down there.”

Lacoste said he agreed with both Land and Willi. “Chris makes a good point that it might be time to raise the rates. Do I think it’s time to raise rates by a large percentage? No. The point that it’s relatively affordable” is a good one, “but I do find that we’re lower compared to other parts of the state. So I think we need to have more thought put into this. I think we could explore a more gradual increase.”

In other news, the council voted unanimously (5-0) to sign a resolution in support of Environment Rhode Island’s opposition to the Trump administration’s plans to open the Atlantic to offshore oil and gas drilling. The council supported the non-profit group’s opposition last year through a signed resolution. 

The next Town Council meeting is Wednesday, March 20 at 7 p.m.