Unhappy boaters seeking way to navigate around new user fee


Although opponents have vowed to get it repealed, the nation's new "recreational vessel fee" will soon be a fact of marine life.

Starting July 31, owners of recreational boats larger than 16 feet that are used in coastal or Great Lakes waters will have to display a federal decal costing $25 to $100 a year.

And even though the fee is for one calendar year, it will not be prorated for 1991, according to a Coast Guard press release. So boat owners will have to buy their second decal by Jan. 1, 1992.

The rules, published in the Federal Register July 1, go into great detail about which boats are included and which are not. The Coast Guard has a hot line, (800) 368-5647, for information and applications.

About 4.1 million of the 10 million registered boats in the United States will be subject to the user fee, including the "vast majority" of the 175,000 pleasure boats based in Maryland, according to the Boat Owners Association of the United States. The Alexandria, Va.-based association, better known as BOAT/U.S., has fought hard to stop the boat tax.

BOAT/U.S. is working to get the tax repealed. But federal budget-balancing guidelines require passing another tax or fee if the boat fee is scrapped. A proposal cleared by the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee would repeal the boat tax and replace it with an access fee for using a new Federal Maritime Commission database.

"If we don't get [the boat tax] repealed by Sept. 1, there is a good chance BOAT/U.S. will file suit against the federal government," said Michael G. Sciulla, vice president of BOAT/U.S.

Sept. 1 is the end of the first grace period for boat owners. Until then, if they have no decal and are spotted by the Coast Guard, they will be pulled over and told about the new law.

After Sept. 1, they will get citations. Boat owners paying the tax by Oct. 1 won't be subject to the fine, which can be as high as $5,000.

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