2014-04-03 / Front Page

Seaweed Harvester Lives On

By Barry Bridges

The Newport City Council has approved a transfer of $25,000 from its contingency fund to finance repairs to the city’s seaweed harvester.

The $325,000 harvester, a prototype which has been beset with problems since its first full season of operation in 2010, suffered a mechanical breakdown during one of its beach-cleaning runs last summer. The city also uses a beach rake for seaweed cleanup.

In a memorandum to the city administration, Newport Director of Public Services William R. Riccio recommended that an additional beach rake and tractor at a combined cost of approximately $105,000 would be a “more appropriate investment” to remove seaweed from First Beach. His report advised that “the purchase of a second beach rake and/or tractor… would allow for speedier recovery and cleanup of the seaweed.”

Agreeing with Riccio’s line of reasoning and arguing against spending more money on the harvesting equipment, Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin said, “It is clear to me, based on what is in this memorandum, that fixing the seaweed harvester is not the way we should go.”

However, the majority of the council was not convinced that the city should abandon its investment in the harvesting machine, which has already required expenditures of over $77,000 for repairs and maintenance.

Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano countered McLaughlin’s statements. “I can tell you,” she said, “when it works, it works.” Napolitano contended that it would be illogical to leave the equipment idle when it has proven successful in making the beach more attractive for visitors. “I would like to see us make this last ditch effort to maintain the seaweed harvester for the families that enjoy Easton’s Beach.”

Councilor Kathryn E. Leonard joined McLaughlin in suggesting it was time to try other options. She highlighted the harvester’s diminishing returns, reviewing figures showing that dramatically fewer tons of seaweed were collected in 2012 and 2013. She did concede that the machine’s down time probably played into the dropoff. “Everybody knows that I’m a ‘money girl,’” Leonard said. “I guess my big problem is that [the repair costs are] open-ended. It’s like you buy a lemon car and it doesn’t work and doesn’t work and doesn’t work and you keep throwing money into it and money into it, when in fact you should probably junk it and get a new one.”

Councilor Marco T. Camacho turned the economic arguments around and pointed out the opportunity costs of not repairing the harvester. He maintained that when families decamp to Middletown’s Second Beach because of seaweed at Easton’s, money goes with them. “We’re losing money for the city and we’re letting our neighbor reap the rewards of that,” he said.

Acknowledging that the last two summers saw disappointing removal rates, Councilor Michael T. Farley chimed in and said that “we need to make sure [the harvester] is pulling off the 2011 volumes [of seaweed]. I’m going to support [the repairs] with some trepidation, but I think it’s the right thing to do because there’s no firm plan in place to deal with seaweed in the 2014 season.”

After questioning Riccio on the time it would take to obtain a second rake, McLaughlin said that there seemed to be a mismatch between the harvester and “that big ocean” and wondered whether the machine was the right tool to address the dimensions of the problem. He continued, “I sat here in 2007 as one of the strongest proponents of buying this equipment. I thought it was really neat. Well, here we are in 2014 and I’m afraid I have to think that we should be going back to the low-tech answer for this, not the high-tech answer. I’ll accept whatever the council decides, but I am really worried that if we continue down this road we’re going to put more money into fixing something and it won’t necessarily fix it.”

Mayor Henry F. Winthrop offered his perspective. “I’ve seen this work. Actually, I rode it one day with the operator, and when it works, it works, and it keeps the beach clean. There’s absolutely no question about it. But just as important is that we have a $320,000 asset that if we don’t repair, we abandon. I’m not prepared to abandon a $320,000 asset for $35,000 to $55,000. I’m prepared to spend that money.”

Wrapping up her thoughts on the matter, Leonard said, “I want a clean beach. I mean, I really want a clean beach.” But she questioned spending money to fix a harvester which may not offer returns to justify additional investments.

Farley suggested that Newport might consider approaching Middletown with an offer to share its beach rake, a move that would be consistent with larger regionalization efforts currently being discussed among the island’s municipalities.

The transfer of monies for the repairs was then approved by a vote of 5 to 2, with Councilor Naomi L. Neville joining Camacho, Farley, Napolitano, and Winthrop in the majority. Councilors Leonard and McLaughlin voted against the expenditure.

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