Port may tie moorage increase to upgrades

Commercial fishing moorage fees in the Port of Newport could go up, and the increase would be tied to electrical improvements under a new plan being floated by port officials. (Photo by Bret Yager)

NEWPORT — Faced with a growing stack of infrastructure improvements needed to keep the Port of Newport operational, its management is floating a plan that would tie an increase in commercial moorage directly to electrical upgrades on Port Dock 5 and Port Dock 7.

Rates would increase each of three years under a proposal for which the port is now seeking feedback.    

The money would be a sure source of construction funds rather than the port relying on grants, which are questionable in their availability and how they can be used, said Director of Operations Aaron Bretz.

“Other ports are wrestling with the same thing — they’re trying to raise rates and not succeeding and they have these infrastructure needs,” Bretz said.  

Electrical outlets on Dock 5 are 30 years old, corroding, no longer meet code and don’t provide enough light. Dock 7 also needs electrical upgrades and better lighting.

The port estimates that improvements for Dock 5 will cost $386,000, and Dock 7 improvements — which will also pave the way for greater capacity to serve a future expansion — will run $269,000.  

The way port leaders are now looking at it, if users see the direct purpose and benefit of their money, they may agree to moorage increases that could range from 10 percent next year up to 78 percent three years from now, depending on how sharp a rise they can stomach.

Commercial moorage revenue has dropped from around $451,000 annually in 2015 to $418,000 last year — due largely to users switching from semi-annual moorage arrangements to cheaper annual moorage deals, Bretz said. That’s despite rate increases last year ranging from 4 to 6 percent for the different transient, monthly, semi-annual and annual fees.

Tying fee increases directly to projects is part of a bigger plan by the port to own its troubles — infrastructure decay that should have been addressed years ago, and scant funds to deal with it now. Port leadership, which presented the concept to the Commercial Fishing Users Group Committee on Thursday, is testing the waters to see how the user community responds.

Fisherman Ted Gibson asked if the rate increase would remain in place after the money needed for the projects is raised.

“I want to keep doing projects,” Bretz said. “But if those dollars are not sustainable, then we have to look at that.”

Port commissioners Sara Skamser and Jim Burke said the plan helps users see the direct impact of their moorage dollars.

“With this thought process, your money goes to electrical upgrades — not South Beach needing picnic tables,” Skamser said.

Burke said he’s heard from users they don’t mind paying more, but they want to see the value.

“I think it’s a great step in the right direction to put restricted funds into maintenance,” he said.

A rate increase “that people can weather” could help leverage more grant funding, said Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative. She urged port leadership to look beyond state grant sources and draw in everyone with a stake in a healthy port — the city, county, seafood processors, environmental groups and others.

“The more groups that are signed on and working together, the more attractive you are (for grant funding),” she said.

The port will have a better outlook in April on what grants might be available after it completes its new strategic business plan, interim General Manager Teri Dresler said.

The port is currently putting money into a fund to assure that the NOAA operations area doesn’t fall victim to the same problems the other areas of the port have experienced: backlogged projects that should have been done years ago — and no way to pay for it, Dresler said. That planning for the future is required in NOAA’s lease with the port.

Fisherman Gary Ripka asked how much money NOAA contributes to the port. Dresler said she didn’t have the numbers in front of her but could get them.

Deterioration of dock facilities is widespread, and there is not enough space for all of the vessels that request to moor in Newport. Down the road, the port would like to expand Port Dock 7.

Revenues from use of the hoist dock went up $130,000 last year, Bretz said, “but we have improvements we need to do there too.”

The port will soon need to rebuild the public crab and fishing dock in South Beach. Its 12,000 square feet of space with 148 pilings is “a really big project that generates no revenue,” Bretz said.

“That funding should be more from the city or state,” Ripka said. “I don’t see why the port should be picking up the bill for that.”

Past plans to remove the public dock were met with a storm of resistance, fisherman David Jenks reminded the group.

“You’re really going to be going uphill if you try to change or remove it,” he said. “We were going to shut it down and we were not allowed to do that.”

The discussion was of a kind the port is likely to experience more frequently as it battles a potential state takeover of the facility and looks to tackle years of neglect and for ways to bring in more revenue to do it — whether through increased partnerships, buy-in and collaboration with other entities that have a stake in the business and tourism the port generates, new shipping deals that strike a balance with commercial fishing at the International Terminal, a different approach to seeking grants, or increased user fees.

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