By Mike Lednovich
There is no denying the fact that the city marina is a financial black hole for city taxpayers and has been for more than a decade.
About $700,000 a year is needed from the city budget to keep the marina operational. The southern docks fill with silt and require dredging to the tune of $500,000 to $1 million every other year. Insurance for the marina costs $660,000. Currently, the marina has lost $750,000 in gasoline sales due to myriad design and equipment flaws at its fuel dock.
At Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, the marina’s management company Oasis Marinas proposed increasing dock rental fees on commercial boats by $2.50 a foot to offset some of the aforementioned costs.
The fee hike sparked a debate among commissioners on whether the city marina should be operated as a “break-even” business or as a taxpayer-supported city amenity that is an important historic facility and feature of the community. In the end, the amenity argument won out and the increase in fees was put off until January 2024 to give commercial boat operators time to adjust their budgets accordingly.
The proposal to delay instituting the fee increase was introduced by Commissioner Darron Ayscue.
“Our commercial fishermen are our charter fishermen, they’re getting ready to go into their off-season. And oftentimes they kind of have to plan out exactly what happens. So, for us to set this fee schedule, I’d like to give them a little bit of time and say hey next year we’re going to go up on rates, but this year we’re going to pause just so they have a little bit of time,” Ayscue said. “And just because I know their industry a little bit, I don’t know if there is an appetite for that if there is an increase just in the charter fishermen or the commercial boats.”
Oasis Marinas Manager Cathy Chapman said the company had modified its suggested commercial fee increase to reflect an incremental hike to $27.50 per foot reduced from $30.00 per foot it originally was seeking.
“The reality is that costs are going up, everything is going up so we don’t want to hit our residents and commercial fishermen all at one time,” said Vice Mayor David Sturges. He suggested the city take ‘baby steps’ on fee increases across the board.
Commissioner Chip Ross, who has studied the economics of the city marina since his election in 2017, questioned giving “for profit” businesses like charter boat operators relief from dock fee increases.
“You’re asking the city taxpayers to subsidize the commercial people here,” Ross said. “I’m totally opposed to that. I’ve heard over and over again that it’s (the marina) an enterprise fund, we should run it like a business. A business would not be doing this.”
Ross maintained that the city has repeatedly instructed Oasis Marinas to run the city marina as a business.
“They (Oasis) know what their business is. We’re asking them to run a business and then we’re interfering with that business,” Ross said. “I have a real problem with that … We’re already subsidizing the commercial rate, heavily, taxpayers’ dollars are doing that. And I’m not willing to wait another year. We’re $700,000 short and that’s not going to wait a year.”
Ayscue responded, saying that if the dock fee increase was adopted for 2023-24 that it would drive charter boat operators to seek other marina facilities.
“We can take that ‘subsidize’ word out of there and just run up the costs and run all of them (charter boats) out of there. Because that’s what is going to happen if we keep doing that (raise rates) and run all of those commercial businesses out of there. They’ll start running their business out of the yacht basin or Tiger Marina or somewhere else,” Ayscue said. “All I’m asking for is a simple pause this year.”
Mayor Bradley Bean posed the question, “What is the point of our marina? What is the point of the golf course? Why is the city in the business of running a marina?
“The point of the marina isn’t to have a whole bunch of different millionaire’s yachts pull up (docked). If we let it go (dock fees) to simply market rate we would slowly see more and more of that. I don’t think that’s the point of a municipal marina. The point of it, our goal isn’t just profiting money. Our goal is to have a hometown atmosphere,” Bean declared. “The point is we keep the rates purposeful at the place that our community gets to use it.”
After several more comments, Sturges said he supported delaying imposition of the new fees until next January giving the commission a consensus on hitting the “pause” button.
Ross made one final point on the importance of the yachts and transient boaters generating revenue for the marina.
“Everybody seems to be unhappy with these yachts. Transient rates make up what percent of our income?” Ross asked.
The answer was 75% of marina revenues.
“It’s those yachts that are carrying the freight so that city taxpayers aren’t paying for it,” Ross said.
Bean retorted “I don’t think our problem is that it’s 75% yachts, we don’t want it to be 100% yachts. Our goal is that we want to keep the local people working here.”
The master fee schedule, which included the delayed marina dock fees, was approved 5-0.