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Town Board passes mooring code changes

To the consternation of Waterways Management Advisory Council members the Town Board Tuesday night unanimously passed a law changing mooring renewals from what has been a requirement every three years to annual renewals. The law also gives the Town Board the power to change permit fees. Arguing that many years have gone by with no increase in mooring fees, Town Board members had earlier set new fees  at $150 per year for a private mooring, up from $125 for a three-year permit. Commercial mooring permit fees were previously set at $250 per year, up from $200 for a three-year permit.

The vote came after Tuesday night’s public hearing designed primarily to change the renewal period from once every three years to an annual renewal.

No one argued an increase in fees was unreasonable, but they did protest the size of the increase, the change from a three-year renewal to an annual renewal and some of the ways in which the fees were to be used to cover certain expenses.

It’s an argument that has been flaring between the WMAC and Town Board for a few months now.

Town Board members maintain they have been listening and compromising.

WMAC Chairman John Needham said he believes minds were made up prior to various encounters.

James Eklund, another WMAC member called the amount of the increases “onerous” and planned use of the money to cover some expenses is unfairly burdening mooring permit holders to the exclusion of others he said benefit from services to be paid from by the fees.

Specifically, Tuesday night, they zeroed in on bay constables, now called harbormasters since Suffolk County eliminated the bay constable title. The town once had a single bay constable and that increased to two and in more recent years added two additional part-time harbormasters.

The two part-timers are town employees who function, one of whom works for the Highway Department in the off season and the other is an animal control officer. No part of their salaries for those jobs will come from mooring fees. But responsibilities of harbormasters extend beyond overseeing moorings to assure they are being properly used. They render assistance and handle violations of other boaters. That’s why some speakers argued not that much of WMAC fee money should pay for most of the services of harbormasters.

In the past year, the Town Board has been creating user fees for various services to lower the amount they have to collect in general taxes.

Mr. Eklund charged the way the  town is planning to pay some expenses with WMAC  mooring permit fees is a tax, not a user fee. He said when you take leaves to the recycling center, they are your leaves and that’s a user fee. But given the benefit others get from various services that are water-related, not just mooring permit holders should be bearing the burden.

A couple of times, Town Attorney Stephen Kiely quoted the Town Code that indicates what fees can be paid with WMAC funds. No one disagreed that’s how the law reads, but they clearly want changes.

In his 25 years of serving on the WMAC, Mr. Needham said the WMAC has always had surpluses and used them appropriately to pay for some expenses.

“It was a good system and fair and funs were being used responsibly,” the WMAC chairman said.

The revised code is in place and takes effect when it is filed with the Secretary of State.

It remains to be seen whether anything will change, at least for the near future.