By Roger Bloom | NB Indy
A divided City Council on Tuesday night voted to nearly triple the charges paid by boaters to tie up their craft in Newport Harbor’s city-administered mooring areas.
The vote also endorsed an ordinance to limit and eventually eliminate the transfer of mooring permits outside of a holder’s immediate family.
The 4-2 vote saw Councilmembers Nancy Gardner and Leslie Daigle opposed, with Councilman Don Webb sitting it out because of a conflict of interest. Mayor Keith Curry and Councilmembers Mike Henn, Ed Selich and Steve Rosansky endorsed the proposal, which was developed by an ad hoc committee consisting of the latter three.
The ad hoc committee and city staff said the increase in charges for mooring permits was necessary to bring them up to fair market value, and to continue to charge less than market value would be an unconstitutional “gift of public funds” to subsidize boaters.
The action came after more than two dozen speakers from among an overflow crowd in and around the Council Chambers pleaded with councilmembers for a smaller increase and, especially, for keeping the transferability of mooring permits.
“Eliminating the transfer policy will cost people a lot of money,” said Patricia Newton, representing the Newport Mooring Association, which includes most of the mooring permit holders among its membership.
The city has until now allowed the transfer the permits to a new holder, and a market in the permits is long established. The permits can go for tens of thousands of dollars. Under the new policy – which will allow two out-of-family transfers per permit in the next 10 years, then ban them altogether – permit holders who paid for them will not be able to recoup that cost by selling, Newton and others noted.
The NMA has proposed a 10 percent transfer fee on the permits, which would maintain the market while providing a public benefit.
The city staff and council majority called the high cost of the permits a “barrier to entry” for boaters seeking space in the harbor, and maintained that eliminating the market will increase accessibility.
Many speakers also questioned the city’s basis for calculating the new fees – they are designed to reach a target of 14 percent of the cost of berthing space in the Harbor, a figure arrived at after surveying other harbors up and down the California coast.
The size of the increase – nearly 300 percent spread over the next five years – was bitterly criticized by several speakers.
“It’s difficult to justify charging more for a crummy product,” said Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, a city harbor commissioner and the owner of Duffy Boats.
The city moorings have to be maintained by the permit holders, Duffy pointed out, and there are no facilities for water, electricity, or storage of the dinghies needed to get to and from the moored boats. Other harbors maintain the moorings and provide amenities, he said.
“I have to make a better boat, then I can charge more,” Duffield said. “If you make (moorings) easier and safer to use, then you can charge more.”
The NMA urged the council to tie the fee increases to the Consumer Price Index, but Henn said the CPI is not an accurate gauge of the costs of boating or the market price of moorings.
Curry’s comments on the size of the increase were blunt.
“It’s our fault,” Curry said. “We’ve all been here four years and we haven’t done anything about the fees in that time.”
He looked out at the overflow crowd and said whenever the City Council had touched on fees since they were last raised in 1996, it faced a similar outpouring. So the previous councils “took the easy way out and took a pass.”
“We’re coming to terms with 14 years of failure to responsibly act,” Curry said.
Speakers also called the move discriminatory, as more than 2,000 boats now tied to private piers in the public harbor were unaffected. The NMA has proposed a blanket fee of $30 per foot for all boats, whether tied to public or private facilities. That would be a 50 percent increase in the current mooring charges and a new fee on the private piers.
The council promised to look at the private piers and other fee issues in the harbor in the near future, but NMA attorney Gary Hatton said the “piecemeal” approach still discriminates against the people first hit with increases.
Hatton held out the possibility of legal action by the NMA, but said that is a decision the association has yet to make.
“I’m incredulous,” said Bill Moses, the NMA’s secretary, after the vote. “They obviously had made up their minds long before tonight.”
The NMA, Moses said, will now “consult with our members and see how they feel they’ve been treated” and then decide on a course.