High and dry

One can hardly blame the boating public for feeling a bit of sticker shock at news that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources wants to triple registration fees for most boaters. The recession has hit the boating industry hard, gas prices are up, and the General Assembly is already considering a number of taxes and fees to balance the state's budget next year.

But there's only one thing the legislature could do to Maryland boaters to make life on the water even worse, and that would be to do nothing at all. Like Odysseus, the DNR is trapped between Scylla and Charybdis with no pain-free choices available.

Currently, boaters pay $24 every two years to register their vessels in the state. The fee hasn't been raised since 1983, and it's the same whether one owns a 20-foot Boston Whaler or a 70-foot yacht. Boat owners also pay a one-time, 5 percent excise tax at the time of purchase or when a vessel is moved into the state as its principal home.

Those fees are the primary source of revenue for the state's Waterway Improvement Fund, which pays to maintain 265 public navigation channels, 400 public boating facilities and thousands of navigation and regulatory buoys and markers. Unfortunately, that fund is exhausted. While it's expected to take in $15 million this year, the cost to maintain the existing boating infrastructure on an annual basis is estimated at $41 million.

It's been like this since the recession hit and boat sales plummeted. To avoid running a deficit, the DNR has simply reduced the amount of dredging and related work it contracts out each year. The boating public can survive like this for a time — navigation channels don't fill up with silt overnight — but the problem has recently taken a turn for the worse.

Because of its own budget woes, the U.S. ArmyCorps of Engineerswill no longer be dredging the shallow channels it has been responsible for in the past. That means the DNR, if it wants to keep important waterways like Tilghman Island's Knapps Narrows open, will have to take on another $6 million in maintenance dredging responsibility each year.

So if a major fee increase is the whirlpool, then the loss of money to the Waterway Improvement Fund is surely the six-headed hydra: Either is capable of doing damage to Maryland's $2 billion boating industry and its estimated 35,000 jobs.

Without dredging, boaters could be hit far worse than a $75 fee (what most would pay biennially by 2015 under the DNR proposal). As channels are lost, Maryland could become what's known as a "high tide state," with large areas impossible to navigate except at high tide. And when they do go out on the water, the chances are that making contact with the bottom (and doing serious damage to their boats) would be that much greater.

The best solution would require lawmakers to take a balanced approach. Raising the fee, at least somewhat, is a necessity. So is creating a more equitable fee structure.

Under the DNR plan, a vessel that is between 45 and 65 feet long would pay as much as $500. Considering such boats cost as much as $3 million to purchase, that's hardly an undue burden. And larger boats are literally more costly to the state as they require greater underwater clearance.

But other aspects of the plan could be deferred or scaled back if the state found other sources of revenue. The Waterway Improvement Fund could, for instance, be provided a small percentage of the state's gas tax proceeds (as was the case in years past to compensate for marine fuel purchases) or other general fund help, at least until the boating economy recovers.

Even if the full DNR proposal is adopted, it would only result in about $10 million more annually. That's still far short of what the fund needs.

Ideally, the boaters ought to be able to foot their own bills. But not every boater owns a luxury yacht. The majority are valued at $12,000 or less, and many owners are more like Gilligan than Thurston Howell III. They can choose to leave their fishing boat in the garage, and that would spell bad news for those who make their living in marinas, restaurants and tackle shops.

It might be a tough sell in Annapolis to spend money on boating at a time when Maryland is already facing tough budgetary choices in more vital areas of education and health care, but the state has spent far more tax dollars to encourage other industries, from farming to professional sports. Jobs on the waterfront are important, too, and Maryland stands to lose them if the boaters are left high and dry.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad