CHATHAM – Faced with millions of dollars worth of water-related infrastructure improvements, the town is implementing a waterways user fee to supplement funding of those projects.
Officials made it clear at a hearing last week, however, that the anticipate revenue from the user fee will be “a drop in the bucket” and that the majority of the funding for the infrastructure upgrades will be paid through property taxes.
“The taxpayers will bear the burden of this,” said waterways advisory committee chairman Peter Taylor. The fee is meant to demonstrate that those who benefit most from the improvements are paying their share. “We're trying to catch everybody who uses the waterways, trying to have everybody contribute,” he said.
The committee unanimously endorsed the user fee, which will cost residents and nonresident taxpayers $50 per year, while non-residents will pay $150 annually. The fee is expected to generate between $150,000 and $175,000 annually, Taylor said. The fee will go into a separate fund that can only be used for waterways projects and not into the general fund, he added.
Mooring permit holders will be required to pay the fee as part of their annual renewal, according to Harbormaster Stuart Smith. Boaters who use town launching ramps or are stored on racks will be required to obtain a separate sticker and pay the $150 fee beginning Jan. 1.
Kayaks and canoes are exempt from the user fee. Residents and taxpayers whose vessels qualify as commercial and who own more than two boats will only have to pay the fee for the first two. Non-resident commercial boat owners will have to pay the fee for all of their vessels.
The user fee will replace the ramp permit previously required for non-resident to use the Ryder's Cove launching ramp. That requirement was put in place to control traffic problems at the landing and helped alleviate the crowding in years when commercial bass fishing drew many out-of-town fishermen. Smith said the ramp permit requirement will be suspended but not eliminated.
“We'll bring it back if we need it for traffic control,” he said.
Not everyone supported the new fee. Shellfisherman Barry Homer said $150 was a lot for visitors to pay if they are only here for a week or so and only launch their boat a few times; a better solution would be a town landing fee that could be paid at kiosks. He also noted that boaters from Orleans and Harwich can use the town's waterways without paying the fee as long as their vessels aren't moored or launched here.
“I feel we already pay enough in fees and taxes in this town,” Homer said.
Darren Saletta, vice chairman of the town's economic development committee and a charter boat operator, said he felt the proposal was flawed and not ready to be implemented. It will be a nightmare to enforce, he said, and since the waterways benefit all by contributing to the quality of life and the tourist industry, everyone should share in the burden of shorefront infrastructure improvement costs. He added that fees, licenses and taxes can amount to 10 percent of a commercial fisherman's gross income.
“A user fee is just another tax,” Saletta said.
The new fee will be enforced by town landing officers and may require expanded hours or more staff, said Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.
“There'll be growing pains, but we'll work it out,” he said, cautioning that officials don't want revenue from the fee to be eaten away by enforcement and other costs. “We don't want to turn this into a big new program,” he said.
There are numerous waterfront infrastructure projects in the pipeline, Duncanson said, including several million dollars in improvement to the fish pier, some of which have already been funded. Revenue from the fee will supplement those costs, but won't cover them entirely. For instance, the several dredging projects in the planning stages could easily cost $1 million, and $150,000 a year will only cover a portion. If federal dredging of Stage Harbor and Aunt Lydia's Cove ends – as has been threatened numerous times – those costs will climb, he said.
“This does not replace the taxpayer subsidy,” he said of the new fee. “That will continue. This program will never be able to replace that. The fees would be so high that there wouldn't be a boat left in Chatham.” The fee is a way to show that those who use the facilities are helping to pay for their upkeep and improvements, he added.