2015-02-05 / Front Page

House Bill Could Strap Harbor

By Tom Walsh

A bill quietly submitted Jan. 29 in the Rhode Island House of Representatives would, depending on its interpretation, drastically curtail Newport Harbor mooring operations and services as well as those of 16 other waterfront communities.

“People are ripped,” said Third Ward City Councilor Kathryn E. Leonard, herself a foe of the legislation. “It has huge consequences for communities like Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth.”

“I’m going to study that bill closely and if it would adversely affect Newport in any way I wouldn’t support it,” said Rep. Marvin L. Abney, D-Newport. Abney also said he would confer with the bill’s sponsors to learn more about its purpose.

“I’m trying to get to the bottom of that one,” said freshman Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport. “Fundamentally, it doesn’t seem like it's good.”

The bill, submitted by the bipartisan duo of Rep. Scott A. Slater, D-Providence, and Rep. Joseph A. Trillo, R-Warwick, would impose a seemingly new, higher-cost fee schedule for mooring space and establish new priorities in granting those spaces. However, the language in the measure that seems to have Newport officials most upset is this:

“All fees collected pursuant to this section shall be allocated to the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) for the sole use of maintaining all harbors’ access and safety. No portion of any fee paid pursuant to this chapter shall be used for any purpose other than maintenance of the harbor and service to users of the moorings.”

In other words, mooring fees that currently go to Newport's coffers would be diverted to the state.

The city projects revenue of $409,500 from mooring fees in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, according to Finance Director Laura Sitrin.

Whatever becomes of the bill in the House, its prospects in the Senate appear dubious at best.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said flatly that she is against the bill. “I oppose it because of concerns about the financial impact to the communities and the negative impact to the marine industry,” she said.

“The legislation is really vague,” said Timothy Mills, Newport harbormaster. “But if the state was to start collecting the fees and we’re not, it would be bad for us. It would limit our ability to operate the harbor and we’d have to cut services .”

Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, also chair of the City Council, was even more vehement in criticizing the bill. “I don’t think it was well written or well thought out,” she said. “It’s so outrageous. The more I read this bill the angrier I got. Everyone in Newport is outraged, and I don’t blame them.”

Napolitano and her colleagues on the council are scheduled to meet with local state lawmakers in a previously-scheduled workshop on Saturday, Feb. 7, to discuss the city’s 2015 legislative priorities. The Slater Trillo bill will be on the agenda.

The city manager's office declined to discuss the issue, indicating that they would not comment publicly until after the workshop.

Harbormaster Mills said the measure does not specifically say that Newport and other waterfront Rhode Island communities could no longer charge fees. However, were that to happen would boaters then pay both a state and local fee for harbor mooring spots? Mills said that question is not specifically addressed in the legislation. The issue warrants more exploration,” Mills said.

Leonard said that if boaters were to eventually be taxed by both the state and the city, “then that would be double taxation.”

Gail Mastrati, DEM communications director, issued this statement when asked about the bill by Newport This Week on Tuesday, Feb. 3: “DEM just learned about the legislation yesterday (and had no role in developing it). On an initial look, we may have some concerns, but we would like to learn more about the purpose and goals before taking an official position.”

Neither Representative Trillo, the minority whip, nor Representative Slater, a deputy majority leader and member of the highprofile House Finance Committee that annually crafts the budget for state government activities, returned phone calls from Newport This Week. The bipartisan tandem sponsoring this measure struck some as unusual.

Asked to comment on the measure, the New York Yacht Club’s Stewart Streuli said, “That’s something I would have to run by our Waterfront Committee. My feeling is that the club will probably not want to comment on it at this time. We’ll just see how it plays out.”

Newport Harbor moorings are allotted at a three-to-one ratio of city residents and non-residents. However, the waiting list for a mooring now includes about 550 applicants. That translates into 10 years for city residents and 15 years for non-residents. Applications for a spot on the waiting list costs $25 for a first application and $10 annually to renew an application.

Under the Slater-Trillo measure, boats weighing up to 500 pounds would cost owners $150 per mooring, boats weighing between 500 to 1,000 pounds would cost $250 per mooring, and boats weighing more than 1,000 pounds would cost $500 per mooring.

Currently, Newport residents with a harbor mooring annually pay a fee of 52 cents per pound of “required mooring weight” but not less than $130. Non-residents pay $1.04 per pound but not less than $325, according to a city ordinance approved on Feb. 14, 2014.

The Slater-Trillo bill also provides that any municipality violating provisions of the bill would be guilty of a “civil violation” to be administered by DEM. Violators would be subject to a fine of up to $100 for a first violation and $250 for any subsequent violation.

“This whole thing is really a sticky, nasty thing,” Leonard said of the measure. She said the bill would not benefit either Newport or the rest of the state. She also maintained that the bill is poorly timed, with Newport hosting a leg of the high-profile international Volvo Ocean Race in May.

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