Harbor Lease Billing Raises Issues On Several Fronts

by William F. Galvin

            HARWICH — The 15 percent increase aside, boaters holding leases on town slips may have been surprised to receive notice from the harbor department that one-third of the annual fee is due 10 days before Christmas.

             Town Administrator Wayne Melville questioned the timing of the billing in an e-mail to Harbormaster Thomas Leach, asking whether adequate notice of the change was provided to boaters.

            Leach raised the issue before the waterways commission last week, explaining his department has been trying to get the billing out earlier in the year to provide more time to notify people on the waiting list of the availability of slips. Leach said he was able to accomplish that goal based on the early action of the board of selectmen in setting the rates for the next boating season.

            “After the approval of rates in October the door was open to send out notices on Nov. 1,” Leach told the commission.

            Melville said he has no doubt the harbormaster has the right to make such changes, but questioned whether the time frame meets with provisions of the harbor management plan. Leach said the only reference to billing dates in the plan is for moorings.

            The bills mailed to boaters by the harbormaster seek one-third of the payment by Dec. 15. Leach pointed out those people who have not made payment at that point would be deemed to have given up their slip. Leach said this will provide early notice for people who are on the waiting list, instead of these people receiving notice of availability of a slip when the boating season is upon them.

            Melville agreed the early billing will help with town cash flow, but he cautioned it would not win Leach any friends. The initial deposit used to be required by Feb.15. With the early billing, Leach said the second bill for final payment will be mailed on March 15.    

            This will help the whole system flow much better, Leach said. He pointed out other towns, such as Dennis, have moved to the early billing cycle.

            Water commission member Murray Johnson offered a motion to have the commission support the new collection timeframe. Members of the commission asked if people would be notified they are losing access to the slip for non-payment.

            The harbormaster said a letter of notification would be sent to those boaters who have not paid by the initial deadline. “You pay to play.” Leach said of the policy. The commission approved the early billing timeframe.

            Commission member Fred Clancy wanted to know if there have been any complaints about the new billing cycle and increased fees from commercial fishermen in town. He said there was no tuna this year and the cod and haddock seasons ended quickly.

            “The fishermen are going to be dying this year,” Clancy said.

            Leach reminded the commission he made recommendations to them for increased fees and they were approved and sent to selectmen for adoptions.           

Taxpayers Association Looking At Slip Fees  

            The Harwich Taxpayers Association is looking into whether boaters are paying competitive rates for slips and moorings in the harbors. Last week, Matt McCaffery told the group, “There is a significant opportunity to improve financial conditions” through those fees.

            He told the group the fees charged by the town for slips and moorings are half that of private companies doing business in harbors of the town. He said a casual look at the figures indicates as much as $500,000 of new revenue could be generated for town coffers.

            “We need to generate more revenue and if we don’t do this the taxpayers are subsidizing low-cost boating,” McCaffery said. “The fee structure is recommended by boaters to the selectmen.”

            McCaffery then put forth a motion to explore the impact of an increased fee structure for all slips and moorings.

            Peter Wall immediately objected, explaining he was on a mooring waiting list for five years, paying each year and having certain expectations when getting a mooring. He now has a mooring and he said a drastic increase would be a “serious breach of contract” with people on waiting lists.  

            “There is a burden on the taxpayers with subsidized boating,” McCaffery said. “We need to have a decision on whether use of the harbors is for low, medium or high- cost boating.”

            McCaffery said 40 percent of the people who lease slips are not from Harwich. Board of Selectmen Chairman Ed McManus said Saquatucket Harbor was developed with state and federal grants that protect the interests of everyone who lives in the commonwealth.

            Town Accountant David Ryan pointed out there is a surplus generated from the harbor at full cost assessment. Town Administrator Wayne Melville two weeks ago made a presentation to selectmen citing the FY 2006 budget for the harbormaster/natural resources office at $345,954, and on a fully allocated cost basis it rises to $467,234.

            Revenues collected from slips and moorings, during the past three year range from $736,000 to $841,000. The estimated revenues from harbor operations in FY 2006 are $748,000, Melville said.

            The taxpayers association voted to form a subcommittee to study the harbor revenue generation issue.