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Senate sinks 2004 mooring law

BOSTON — Lawmakers aim to sink a rule requiring harbormasters to charge the same mooring fee for residents and nonresidents.

Not that local officials paid much attention to the 2004 regulatory change.

Salem Harbormaster Peter Gifford said he still charges residents $1.50 and nonresidents $6 per vessel foot. He had considered a $5 flat rate at one time.

"I was a little annoyed the way it happened," he said. "We knew that they were going to reverse it. I didn’t want to change things and have them change it back two months later."

A strict reading of the law would likely mean a mooring fee increase for thousands of residents on the North Shore alone.

The Senate moved Tuesday to repeal the law.

Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, called it a matter of restoring local control. He sponsored the measure as an amendment to the state budget adopted.

"I’m trying to give residents a break," Tarr said. "And harbormasters all up and down the coast have been taking issue with this because it took away their ability to tailor the fee structure."

Critics of the change contend residents deserve a discount because they pay local property taxes and deal with sometimes much higher coastal property values.

The cost difference can be staggering. Based on Salem’s mooring fees, a resident would pay $30 for a 20-foot vessel, while a nonresident would pay $120 for the same craft.

Mooring fees in Gloucester are $4 for residents and $6 for nonresidents, per vessel foot, said Rep. Anthony J. Verga, D-Gloucester. He said his city had considered changing it to a flat rate of $5 per foot for all boats, which would have been a revenue-neutral change.

When the Legislature pushed through the across-the-board fee last year, it sent bureaucratic waves crashing along the coast because many mooring fees for the summer had already been announced.

Sen. Michael W. Morrissey, D-Quincy, added the flat-fee provision to the 2004 bond bill the state uses to pay for transportation projects. A boat owner, Morrissey said he heard from constituents who contend the two-tier fee system is unfair.

"No one charged Christopher Columbus," he said during the floor debate. "More importantly, this is about small boat owners and those wealthy seashore towns ripping off their owners."

Tarr took issue with Morrissey’s interpretation.

"It is not about equity," Tarr said on the floor. "It is about local taxpayers helping to finance the vacations of some of our wealthy residents. This is about the Massachusetts Legislature, at a time when we have been cutting local aid, reaching into small communities and telling them what they can and cannot do with fees."

Last year’s change was so sudden it even caught Verga, the chairman of the legislative recreational boating caucus, by surprise.

"It came under the cover of darkness," he said, shaking his head as he recalled last year’s controversy.

Even as the Senate voted 32 to 5 to repeal the law, the issue remained contentious.

Sen. Robert A. O’Leary, D-Barnstable, called last year’s change "Senate skullduggery." He said neither the Legislature nor the public had a chance to comment on it. He cosponsored the repeal.

"This was done in the 11th hour in the dead of night," said O’Leary. He owns a 17-foot Boston Whaler and estimated he pays about $70 a year in mooring fees.

The change must be resolved in a Senate-House committee before being finalized.

Gifford, the Salem harbormaster, said he collects about $160,000 in mooring fees a year. He said the money goes toward operations, equipment and maintenance.

Posted on May 26th, 2005 by dan in North Shore