St. John Tradewinds News

DPNR Raising Fees Despite Lack of Services for Boating Community

 

Commercial boat operator Dan Boyd, above, testifies during last week’s DPNR meeting on proposed mooring fee increases. DPNR’s Director of Environmental Enforcement Roberto Tapia, below, listens while an 11-year-old resident detailed dangerous actions by the division’s officers in Coral Bay last week.

Despite the lack of a Mooring Plan, Water Use Plan or providing any services to the boating community  — including dock maintenance, pump out facilities, security and trash services — Department of Planning and Natural Resources will raise mooring, anchoring and registration fees by as much as 700 percent over the next two years, officials told about 150 people at public meeting at the Westin Resort and Villas on Thursday night, July 26.

It was standing room only in the Westin ballroom at the planned 6 p.m. start of the meeting, yet DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes didn’t arrive until 6:35 p.m.

When Barnes did arrive, the commissioner laid out “rules of engagement” for the well-attended meeting, in light of DPNR enforcement action earlier in the week which had riled Coral Bay residents (see sidebar and related investigation in this week’s edition).

“Tonight we are dealing with mooring fee increases only,” said Barnes, who had difficulty keeping the meeting on task during the evening. “We will provide an appropriate forum to address your concerns. This is not the forum for that.”

Mooring fees have not increased since 1986 and  DPNR hosted a series of meetings last week across the territory to gather information about the proposed fee structure from stakeholders, Barnes explained.

“This is just the beginning,” she said. “This is the first series of meetings for information exchange and for us to gather input from stakeholders.”

While promising a minor increase in 2013 — which will raise mooring fees from $5 per foot to $8 per foot annually and hike anchoring fees from $2 per foot to $5 per foot monthly — followed by larger spikes in the fees the following year, Barnes said the proposed fees were “not written in stone.”

Any fee changes must ultimately be approved by the V.I. Legislature before going into effect, Barnes added.

The increased fees will not serve as a revenue stream for DPNR, but instead will sustain the department’s “initiative to endeavor to improve services provided to the boating community,” said Barnes.

When asked what services DPNR plans to provide, however, Barnes did not elaborate.

“Through this process we are endeavoring to comply with our mandate and provide infrastructure improvements,” said the DPNR Commissioner. “We will work with you to finalize a draft of a mooring plan by 2013 and with these increases, when we roll out a mooring plan, we will have the finances to sustain that plan.”

The finances, however, will come on the backs of boaters who are being asked to pay more in mooring fees than homeowners pay for property taxes, pointed out Dick Burks, who was one of 14 residents to testify at the meeting.

“Looking at the annual cost you are proposing, a lot of people pay less for property taxes than what you propose for mooring fees,” said Burks. “How can mooring fees be more than property taxes.”

DPNR’s proposed fee structure also pins the highest cost on live-aboard boaters, Burks added.

“There are different fees for pleasure craft and live-aboard pleasure craft,” Burks said. “Are you discriminating against people who live aboard their boats and giving them a penalty.”

Commercial operators barely eking out a living are also being punished, explained Dan Boyd.

“According to your proposed increase, I would have to pay 500 percent more for my vessel,” said Boyd. “I wish my business would increase by 500 percent too. We’ve already been hit by the increase in gross receipts and now you’re asking for more money too.”

DPNR doesn’t provide security and officials do nothing about on-going dinghy theft in Cruz Bay harbor, Boyd added.

“We’ve had a lot of dinghies stolen in Cruz Bay,” Boyd said. “DPNR has been no help at all.”

Although proposing fee increases, DPNR has not detailed what the fee increases will fund, explained Jamie Brown.

“I feel like this is half of a proposal,” said Brown. “I wish we saw where these fees are going. Has anyone looked at the economic impact of these fees.”

Although Barnes said her department had “endeavored to collect information about similar mooring programs,” DPNR’s proposed fee increases are no in like with nearby systems, explained Jason Hayman.

“The fees you are suggesting are not based on local similar programs,” said Hayman. “These fees are in line with an area like Key West, Florida, where the government owns the moorings and checks them every two weeks and maintains them. There are dinghy docks and pump out facilities there that justify those fees.”

“Without even a plan, it is not realistic to charge these kinds of fees,” said Hayman.

While DPNR expects to collect more money with the increased fees, that might not be the case, explained Larry Best.

“We all know that compliance with the mooring and registration system is probably about half,” said Best. “With these huge increases, compliance is bound to go down. And with any organized boycott, that revenue increase will go way down.”

Barnes encouraged anyone who wanted to comment on DPNR’s mooring fee increase to email her at alicia.barnes@dpnr.gov.