Shipwrights give Port of Port Townsend feedback on rates, fees

By Robin Dudley of the Leader
Posted 2/16/16

Representatives from the largest marine trades firm in Jefferson County voiced strong concerns with the Port of Port Townsend commissioners regarding certain user fees.

Martin Mills and Tim Lee of …

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Shipwrights give Port of Port Townsend feedback on rates, fees

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Representatives from the largest marine trades firm in Jefferson County voiced strong concerns with the Port of Port Townsend commissioners regarding certain user fees.

Martin Mills and Tim Lee of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op asked commissioners at a Feb. 10 meeting about the 3 percent heavy haulout surcharge.

When the port commission in 1995 approved a project to build a pier and add a 300-ton mobile boat hoist to supplement the 70-ton hoist already here, it came with a commitment from the larger marine trades businesses to support the effort financially. Instead of a cash contribution, the concept was that any port lease tenant working on a boat that uses the heavy haulout must contribute 3 percent of the value of the project, be it maintenance, repair or construction, to the port.

"The CERB [Community Economic Revitalization Board] loan was for $1.7 million just for the heavy haulout," Jim Pivarnik, deputy port director, told the Leader Feb. 16. "In order to get that loan, CERB required us to get commitment from our marine trades that they would help fund this."

Pivarnik said "seven or eight" marine trades businesses pledged to pay the 3 percent surcharge. "It was on the honor system," Pivarnik said.

The commission installed the surcharge in January of 1997. The surcharge does not apply to the 70-ton lift.

The heavy haulout greatly expanded the type of vessels that could be served in Port Townsend – and it opened at a time when the Alaskan fishing fleet boats were in a down period, so extra work was needed.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Shipwrights Co-op – which has expanded to become the largest business on port property – wants an accounting of the surcharge fund.

"We'd like to encourage an audit of the 3 percent heavy-haulout surcharge," Mills said to the port commission. "We'd like to know who's paying it, because we've paid our part. We'd like to know where ours has gone. How much was made on the 3 percent surcharge last year?"

Pivarnik told the Leader Feb. 16 the port normally receives "$50,000 to $60,000 per year" from the surcharge. In 2015, he said, "we received $110,000 …. There were about a dozen different marine trades that contributed."

In 2015, the Shipwright Co-op's contribution was $51,000, Pivarnik said.

The CERB loan is to be paid off in July 2017, Pivarnik said, and commissioners must decide whether the surcharge continues in order to fund maintenance of the heavy haulout. "It's going to be an interesting battle," Pivarnik noted.

There is a $15,000 cap on a given job's surcharge, he added.

Commissioner Pete Hanke noted at the Feb. 10 port meeting that the surcharge is on the honor system, and added, "if you're doing your own work, you're not paying the 3 percent."

WORK FLOAT

Mills also voiced concerns about increased rates for use of the work float, a section of dock used for things like pulling masts from sailboats prior to haulout, and installation of equipment that has to be done while a boat is in the water.

Work-float rates are currently listed on the port's website as $2 per foot per day with a two-week maximum. The rate used to be $1 a foot, Pivarnik told the Leader.

According to a port budget document, in 2015 the port expected to generate $3,000 from the work float and lift pier usage, and in 2016, the budget number is $18,000.

Pivarnik said that jump reflects a change in how the accounting is done this year. "We had a category called ship moorage; that's just moorage now," he said.

Transient moorage was raised from $1 per foot to $1.25 per foot, and the work float's increase was greater because "we wanted to make sure there was a differential," Pivarnik said. "What we're trying to discourage is long-term projects [on the work float]." People would reserve the work float for four months, and others couldn't use it, he said. He likened it to "box seats" at a sporting event, and transient moorage on the linear dock, a long walk from shore, to "the bleachers."

The increase in work-float fees, Mills said Feb. 10, can leave people feeling "gouged," and may result in those boat owners choosing other ports for future haul-outs and maintenance.

"I don't think you're making much extra money by raising [work float] rates," he said. "At the end of the day, are you going to make more money off of it because it gets used half as much?"

Lee said, "People might spend $200,000 or $400,000 here, and the work float comes at the end of a project. It's a pretty crucial element of finishing a boat up."

"These are projects that might have already spent $9,000 on land storage," Mills said. "A big bill or something added on at the end of a project has more negative impact on a client than at the beginning."

"[High work-float rate] is a hard thing to explain to clients. They're going to feel gouged. Working boat communities ... spend money consistently. It seems like the wrong angle to take."

PUBLIC RELATIONS

Mills repeated that the work done in the port is service, and encouraged the port administration to consider taking more care with public relations with big-spending commercial boat owners, "to make the port more attractive to [boats from] Alaska."

He explained that the commercial boats that spend a lot of money on maintenance and repair in Port Townsend are more likely to continue bringing their boats here with more boat-friendly policies.

Mills spoke from experience; he owns and operates a fishing tender, visiting various ports in the course of a fishing season, so he's observed how different ports approach boat owners. He has also talked with port customers who have been put off by the policies at the Port of Port Townsend.

"The 'innocent until proven guilty' attitude is what we need …. Coming down and getting in your face isn't the best way," Mills said of how some commercial boat owners are treated upon arrival.

"The [port] commission has told us that we need to collect payment right away," Pivarnik said Feb. 16. "We have had a number of boats that would come in for a day or two and then leave."

Pivarnik said the port encourages patrons to check in promptly. "In Alaska, this is how you do it ... you go up to the office when you're ready." He likened it to arriving at a hotel and expecting to be able to go to one's room without checking in at the front desk.

"The attitude of a lot of fishermen is just a different way of thinking," Pivarnik said.

"It's just a tone," Mills said to the commission Feb. 10. "It's not a huge thing, but for some reason it really puts people's hackles up. To be made to feel like a criminal – to be treated like someone who's not going to pay their bill. We're a service industry."

Commissioner Hanke said the shipyard, unlike the boatyard, "is kind of a golden goose," drawing a lot of big-ticket customers. "If we don't do a good job with that customer service," the port could lose customers. "We've got Alaska breathing down our neck," Hanke said. "Anything we can do to entice customers is a good idea."

"You can send out all the paper surveys you want, but it's the radio chatter that tells you what the truth is," Mills said, referring to fishermen's practice of talking on the radio while at sea.

The economic benefit of encouraging commercial boat work in Port Townsend goes beyond his own business, Mills said. Crews of boats here for months-long maintenance or repair spend money at local businesses – Henery's Hardware, restaurants, gas stations, hotels, Safeway – which benefits the whole town's economy.

"The economic falloff from these big crewed workboats is huge. They're spending huge dollars here every day," he said. "The biggest dollar we can spend in the port is by working on boats in the port."

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