Harbors Committee mulls pump-out fees for marinas

Thu, 01/24/2019 - 5:45pm

To charge or not to charge, that is the question.

“I flip-flop on this all the time,” said Harbormaster Steve Land to members of the Harbors Committee on Jan. 17. It’s a question the Committee has been debating for a couple of years: whether or not to charge Block Island marinas for the pump-out services the town now provides them free of charge.

Island marinas are supposed to provide pump-out facilities at their docks, but they don’t. Given the choice between providing free services and the possible non-compliance with the “no discharge” laws, all while respecting the financial burden on taxpayers, Land said “The goal is to protect the environment.”

At a previous meeting, the need for having some numbers that could be used to come up with a reasonable fee was expressed.

The cost of providing pump-out services is commingled with other expenses of the Harbors Department. For instance, employees may have various duties, some involving pump-out services and some not.

Other costs that may need to be estimated or allocated include vessel maintenance, fuel, equipment and repairs. Land cautioned that: “Everything is estimates on estimates.”

Nonetheless, Land, with help from the Finance Department, presented the committee with an estimate of how much the pump-out service has cost the town from 2014 through 2017. Land said the average cost was $57,567 per year (this figure includes $11,199 in sewer fees for treating the sewage at the town plant), but that those costs would have been offset each year with an average of $5,378 in donations.

Sewer fees may be easy to pin down, but just how much of the total each marina may be responsible for is not an exact science. Currently, the pump-out boats do not have meters on them. However, based on the numbers Land provided, four marinas — Champlin’s, the Boat Basin, Payne’s Dock and the Hog Pen — account for some 40 percent of sewage collected.

Currently, members of the Harbors Committee are considering charging a proportional fee for each marina, but even that seemingly simple solution could be complicated.

Land said that if a pump-out program had been aided by government grant money, no more than five dollars per boat could be charged. He also said that when each boat is charged, compliance levels drop, although when the service if free, not only is compliance high, but boat owners tend to tip the Harbors employees instead.

Even though the services are currently free, member Carl Kaufmann said “we can’t waive” the legal obligation of marinas to provide their own pump-out facilities.

“At most modern marinas, every slip has a pump-out” connection, said Land.

Member Pat Evans agreed with Kaufmann, adding that the need for pump-out services could occur when the Harbors Department is not available, such as late at night.

In the end, it will be the Town Council that decides the matter, as the Harbors Committee is an advisory board. In the meantime, the owners of the marinas will be sent a letter informing them of the proposals so they can weigh in at an upcoming meeting.

In the future, it may be more possible to pinpoint the number of gallons of sewage collected at each marina.

The Harbors Department is working on a $17,000 grant to purchase and install a new peristaltic pump that would be land-based and used to offload sewage from the pump-out boats. Land said that the pumps on the boats perform double-duty. They pump sewage into the boat, and then the same pump offloads the sewage into the sewer system. This greatly increases wear and tear on the pumps, leading to high maintenance costs. A peristaltic pump would not only decrease wear and tear, but greatly reduce the time it takes to empty the pump-out boats.

“That’s awesome,” said Evans, who after the meeting explained to The Times that it would only “take minutes” instead of a half an hour to offload a boat. It would also decrease waiting time if there was a line of boats at the offloading site. The Harbors Department utilizes four boats.

The Harbors Management Plan is still in the process of revision, and Harbors Committee member Charles Gustafson has something he would like to have added to the document — the Coast Guard Station. In a memo to Town Manager Ed Roberge and copied to the Harbors Committee, Gustafson writes: “The Coastal Resources Management Council web site has a document that contains guidelines for development of a Harbor Management Plan. A key requirement is the identification of public access points, their maintenance and thoughts on improving their usage. The Coast Guard Station would seem to fall under these requirements as it is owned by the town but yet the public and town residents are barred from entering the property.”

Gustafson told his fellow committee members: “It’s coming up on 20 years since it’s been town-owned,” adding that there is a big sign telling people to keep out. “There’s no reason the public shouldn’t have access to this property,” he said, although access didn’t necessarily mean access to the inside of the buildings.

“I agree, we should open it up,’ said Land, adding that the State Police do stay there in the summer and “they want a secure building.” (Other seasonal town employees, as well as Marc Tillson, the town Building Official, also live there.)

“This is like a diamond in the rough,” said committee member Gary Pollard.

“It would have to be reconfigured,” said Evans. “It is a gem, and it is underutilized.”

Members acknowledged the efforts of other town groups, specifically the town’s Large Capital Assets Committee, in evaluating needs and potential uses of the facility. Other groups, such as the Planning Board and the late Shoreline Access Working Group have also weighed in on the subject. When the latter visited the site, they had ideas for increasing public access including clearing the path behind the main building and increasing parking along the road, but construction projects in the area precluded any specific actions, and the group was disbanded after the conclusion of their year-long charge.

“I think it’s a shame to go another summer without public access,’ said Gustafson.

Committee Chair Denny Heinz said the biggest problem was a lack of space for parking.

“There’s lots of parking inside the facility,” said Gustafson.

Kaufmann agreed that the Coast Guard Station should be at least acknowledged in the Harbor Management Plan, without “making a lot of recommendations,” and made a motion to have it included, which passed. “Build a little fire under ‘em and see if we can get their attention,” he said.