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Stranded Boaters May Have to Pay for a Helping Hand

August 22, 1986|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times County Bureau Chief

The free ride for Orange County boaters stranded at sea may be over, according to a report released Thursday.

In the light of Harbor Patrol operations at Dana Point, Newport and Sunset/Huntington Beach harbors costing $2 million a year more than they bring in, the county administrative office is recommending that boaters be charged for services that now are free.

In an emergency, people in trouble would be helped first and billed later, the report stresses, but the county could at least start covering its costs for services such as towing, pumping and jump-starting boats.

Three years ago the U.S. Coast Guard stopped giving help in non-emergencies to free its personnel to combat drug smuggling and assist in life-threatening situations. County officials said that charging for Harbor Patrol services would mean that people who benefit from help would be paying for it, rather than having taxpayers throughout the county subsidize the operations.

Last year the county Harbor Patrol performed 1,678 tows, 418 pumping assists and 661 other types of assistance to boaters. That cost the county an average of $43 an hour. If boaters had been charged for those services, it would have brought in $118,550 in revenue, the report said.

The county could save money, the report said, by using lower-ranked and lower-paid officers in its Harbor Patrol ranks, whose 50 members are from the Sheriff's Department.

San Diego and Long Beach patrol their harbors with lower-ranked workers whose salaries can be $250 a month less than a higher-ranking police officer, the report said. Orange County uses similar staff for security at John Wayne Airport.

Sheriff's deputies patrol Dana Point Harbor, which is in unincorporated county territory. Deputies would be required on land even if lower-ranking positions were instituted in the harbor. Newport Beach and Huntington Beach have their own police for land duty.

Funding Shortage

The report said that when the Harbor Patrol was transferred to the Harbor, Beaches and Parks Department within the Environmental Management Agency in 1975, "there was little or no anticipation" that funds "would not be sufficient to indefinitely continue the current level of service" for the department.

But the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 cut the county's property tax revenues in half. In addition, in recent years "urbanization of the county and the significant increase of recreational areas and open space dedications to the (Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department) have increased the operating and maintenance costs."

The result: "A critical projected shortage of operating funds" for the department has developed.

Supervisors have been trying to get the department to pay for itself by the fiscal year starting Aug. 1, 1988, and reductions in the Harbor Patrol budget have been one target. In the 1984-85 fiscal year, the Harbor Patrol took in $3.3 million in revenue--mostly from mooring and docking fees and rent paid by businesses on harbor land--but cost the county $5.3 million, the report said.

Not Contemplated Now

Contracting with private companies to provide Harbor Patrol services is a possibility in the future, but not now, the report said. Nor is it feasible to cut back on 24-hour operations.

One recommendation for raising money was to increase charges by an unspecified amount for commercial filming in county harbors. The fee now is $300 a day, while Santa Barbara charges approximately $1,000.

In addition, the report said the discount from Oct. 1 through April 30 in docking charges, meant to draw tourist boaters to the harbors, should be ended, since the tourist season now lasts all year.

The report suggested that the county should get more revenue from its operations in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. It said 96% of the cost of its operations at Dana Point is covered by money received in fees and rent from businesses there. In Newport and Sunset/Huntington Beach, the county is responsible for the majority of the costs but gets only a small part of the fees and rents, with the bulk going to the cities.

As for the "user fees" for tows, pumps and jump-starts, the report pointed out that the service "could eventually be insurance-covered."

Firms May Jump In

It said that once charges are levied, insurance companies will probably jump in. It quoted a marine insurance underwriter as saying that insurance wasn't offered to boaters now because Harbor Patrol service is free.

Also, if the county starts charging, private companies might be willing to compete to provide the services, in keeping with county policy of having private business take over county services wherever possible, the report said.

After citing the advantages of user fees, the report specified only one disadvantage: "Temporary dissatisfaction of the boating public may result when free services are discontinued."

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