Published DateCONCORD — The presence of Marine Patrol on the lakes in the future perhaps hinges on legislation sponsored by Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) that would repeal a statute halving boat registration fees as of July 1, 2015. Huot's bill passed the House of Representatives and now awaits a vote in the Senate.
The registration fees represent close to 60-percent of the Marine Patrol budget with a Recreational Boating Safety Grant from the United States Coast Guard accounting for the balance. The grant includes a "maintenance of effort" clause that requires the Coast Guard to reduce the amount of the grant to match reductions in state funding for marine safety. The state budget adopted by the House of Representatives appropriates $4.6-million in fiscal year 2014 and $4.9-million in fiscal year 2015 to Marine Patrol, with registration fees representing $2.8-million and $3.1-million of the revenue.
The registration fees were introduced in 1992. As the number of registrations rose, peaking at 102,258 boats in 2005, Marine Patrol was able to fund its operations without adjusting the fees. However, by 2008 the number of registrations had shrunk while inflation had more than halved the purchasing power of dollar since 1992. Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner of the Department of Safety, said that as Marine Patrol's resources diminished, the boating season, traditionally June, July and August, stretched to between ice-out and ice-in. As calls for service rose, he said that the number of seasonal officers dwindled and the condition of the fleet and equipment deteriorated. Moreover, the agency's headquarters at Glendale became structurally unsound and began sinking into the lake.
In 2009, the Legislature, with the support of the New Hampshire Marine Trades Association and New Hampshire Lakes Association, doubled the registration fees, adding a rider that they would revert to their original rates in 2015 without legislation to maintain them.
However, Sweeney said that Marine Patrol fared less well in the 2012-2013 budget. Apart from trimming the operating budget, the Legislature also drained more than $1 million from the Navigation Safety Fund, a dedicated fund accrued from the annual surpluses in the operating budget, and stipulated that future operating surpluses would lapse to the general fund rather than the Navigation Safety Fund. Sweeney called these measures "a double whammy" to Marine Patrol, which threaten its funding from the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, an assessment of the headquarters building at Glendale in Gilford found it was settling in several directions, its roofs fail to meet snow load requirements and it is not handicapped accessible. Moreover, the mechanical and electrical systems are inefficient and inadequate. The report recommended replacing the building at an estimated cost of $11-million. This year the Public Works Bureau of the New Hampshire Department of Administrative Services revisited the report and proposed replacing the building with a smaller 32,000-square foot structure for a cost of $9.4-million.
Sweeney said that if registration fees were halved in 2015, revenues would decrease by at least $1.6-million a year, leaving the agency approximately $500,000 short of meeting operating expenses. That he said would require another budget reduction, which could jeopardize funding from the Coast Guard and put paid to tackling the conditions at Glendale.
Huot's bill to repeal the repeal (House Bill 411) carried the House by 36 votes, 189 to 153, with only 10 Republicans — and only one of 13 Republicans from Belknap County — voting with the majority.