Bristol Council votes to more than double non-profits' mooring fees

Sailing schools would pay 150% more to moor boats

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Non-profit sailing schools that educate the next generation of sailors in boating-centric Bristol may soon be paying more than double the price to moor their small crafts in Bristol Harbor, after the Town Council voted to charge them as commercial businesses.

For a generation, the East Bay Sailing Foundation and the sailing school at Herreshoff Marine Museum have moored their small sailboats in the harbor each summer, in easy reach for the hundreds of children and adults who earn their stripes in the schools each year. In that time, both schools have paid the town the residential rate for mooring fees, saving the non-profits that operate in the red money on such administrative costs. That tradition is likely coming to an end this year, after the Town Council voted last Wednesday to charge the schools the more expensive commercial rate.

Bristol charges residents just $100 a season to rent a mooring in the harbor for their personal crafts. Commercial businesses must pay the higher rate of $260 a season per mooring. There is no separate rate for a non-profit organization, prompting the council last year to ask the Harbormaster’s office to review the rate system.

“We found they were paying the residential instead of the commercial rate, but they didn’t fit the definition of residential,” said Bristol Harbormaster Gregg Marsili.

The Harbor Commission advisory committee recommended charging the schools the commercial rate, but the council held off, tabling the decision to this season. Last Wednesday, during a work session, the council voted 4-1 to propose the commercial rate.

“Should a non-profit be considered a resident or a business,” said Councilman Ed Stuart, who voted for the commercial rate. “I don’t define a non-profit as a resident that lives in a house.”

Councilwoman Mary Parella, the lone vote against charging a commercial rate, said the value the non-profit schools bring the community justifies them paying less than the commercial rate. She proposed establishing a non-profit rate somewhere between the two existing rates, but the proposal was shot down.

“I think it is a separate category. Is the service a value to our community? Is it a value to give a better rate to encourage sailing,” Ms. Parella said.

The commercial rate will more than double the fees the schools pay the town, increasing East Bay Sailing’s mooring price by $3,000; Herreshoff’s by $1,400. While it may not sound like a lot of money on the surface, for non-profits that are losing money every year, it is significant, according to Nick Cromwell of East Bay Sailing.

“Three thousand dollars to the town of Bristol is not a lot of money. Three thousand dollars to a non-profit who runs in the red to the tune of $20,000 a year, is a significant amount of money,” Mr. Cromwell said, noting he intends to bring a crowd to a public hearing when the council schedules a final vote. “This is essentially a windfall for the town at the expense of non-profits.”

East Bay Sailing educates about 500 new sailors each year, and Herreshoff teaches about 300 kids. Both schools offer need-based scholarships in an attempt to open the sport of boating to all, according to Dana Clough, of Herreshoff, which also works with the local school district to help develop the next generation of sailors. The schools also hire dozens of local high school and college students each season.

“We offer scholarship programs. We work with the schools. We do a lot to help the community,” Ms. Clough said.

The schools also take up much less space in the harbor and moor their boats in areas that aren’t accessible to larger personal or commercial crafts. Herreshoff, for instance, ties its fleet to eight moorings near the museum on the southern end of Hope Street. Larger boats would take up more space, giving the town fewer moorings to rent, Ms. Clough said.

The schools charge a range of prices depending on the program. East Bay Sailing charges $340 for a one-week adult class; $550 for a two-week session. The high school program charges students $40 for a one-day class, $100 for three sessions, or $600 for the entire season (21 sessions).

Herreshoff charges $335 for a one-week summer youth camp; $200 for an advanced teen one-week camp. Adult classes range from $50 for a single session to $300 for a weekend package. Scholarships are available from both schools.

“The non-profit sailing schools in Bristol have an important role in our community. Unlike many sailing organizations, we are open to the community, provide scholarships, and work with local schools,” Mr. Cromwell wrote in a letter to the editor. “While the additional $5,000 Bristol will add to its coffers is a small amount for the town, it is significant to the non-profits that have to work for every dollar in our budgets.”
While it may seem like a small amount to the town, such small amounts add up to a significant cost, according to Councilman Nathan Calouro, who noted the sailing schools’ savings amount to one home’s annual property tax.

“I think it’s a lot of money,” Mr. Calouro said. “My comments are not about your quality, your value to the community. It’s not a lot of money as a percentage, but we routinely make decisions that are not only about the dollars. It’s the precedent.”

Despite two failed motions to establish a non-profit rate, the council opted to stay with the two existing rates. The proposal to charge the sailing schools the commercial rate will go before the full Town Council at an upcoming meeting.

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Andrew Wilson, New Orleans

As a former resident and sailboat owner in Bristol, I'm amazed at the council's myopic rationale. Attempting to equate mooring fees, for which the boat owner receives little, if any, services or benefits from the town, with property taxes, in return for which the property owner receives significant services and benefits (or should), makes no sense. In addition, a for-profit corporation can off-set mooring expenses against revenue, thus reducing its income taxes. A non-profit can't do that. Moreover, the council's simplistic desire to match the fees charged for-profit entities with those charged non-profits appears to be a classic example of "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," to quote Emerson. Finally, aside from the actual benefits of producing new generations of sailors, the council's thinking also fails to perceive the intangible benefits to the town by promoting for tourism purposes its history as a seaport, boat building area, and sailing center, if not a home to many a sailor. Will the council now start charging for aesthetic views of the Bay from the town's shores?

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