SAN PEDRO — The Los Angeles Harbor Department will pick up the electricity tab for boat owners who lease slips at the city-owned Cabrillo Marina and will return $12,000 in electricity charges to about 300 of the boaters.
The Board of Harbor Commissioners, which sets policy for the port, unanimously voted Wednesday not to bill the marina's 1,180 boaters for electricity and to give refunds to those who paid $10 a month for it from February through May last year.
Ezunial Burts, the port's executive director, said the department recommended the move because the port was collecting so little money in electricity charges from the boaters that the collection process had become a losing venture.
"The administrative overhead is not offset by the fees collected," Burts said. "We now believe it is not feasible."
In a written report to the board, Rami Furman, the port's chief financial officer, said the decision to stop charging for electricity is "subject to later review" and that the port will "develop an equitable and effective way to recover utility costs in the future."
Julia Nagano, a port spokeswoman, said the port pays about $6,000 a month for electricity at the marina, including lights in parking lots, a community building and other facilities. She said a breakdown for charges from the 1,180 slips was not available.
Furman did not return numerous phone calls from The Times, but Burts told the board that any new collection system will not be retroactive--meaning boat owners will not be required to pay for electricity already used.
"Until we have a new system, everything will be free?" asked board President Jun Mori.
"That is correct," Burts responded.
Burts said later that the boat owners in fact are not getting free electricity from the city because they indirectly pay for it in their monthly rental fees, which are based on the length of boats. Mori asked why, then, boaters had been charged separately for power.
Burts did not answer directly, but he said rental rates will be adjusted in the future if electricity usage increases. "From this point forward we will see if we need to make adjustments," Burts said.
Nagano said most of the marina's tenants--about 880 of whom moved into the marina in August and September--were never charged separately for electricity because port officials recognized last summer that the system was not cost-effective. The marina's first tenants--the 300 boaters who will receive the refunds--moved into the uncompleted facility in February, she said.
Steve Dillenbeck, who manages the marina, said in an interview that it was costing the port too much to read meters that were installed at each of the 1,180 slips to monitor electricity use. While most marinas in the Los Angeles area do not have individual slip meters, they have become standard equipment at new marinas.
"In my world, they make things fair," said Bill Cummings, who manages a 500-slip marina in Ventura that has electricity meters. "If you use it, you pay for it. If you don't use it, you don't pay for it."
Cummings said live-aboard boaters can run up a monthly electricity bill of $20, while other boaters who use their crafts less often might never plug into outlets. He said it takes four of his employees about half a day each month to collect meter readings.
Boaters use dockside electricity to run refrigerators, televisions, electrical tools and generators. Port officials said there are 55 live-aboards in Cabrillo Marina, all of whom pay about 40% more for their slips than other tenants.
Ron Kennedy, who heads property management for the Los Angeles Harbor Department, said the port decided to install the meters as a safeguard against rising utility costs. "When they were proposed initially, we were in a petroleum crunch," Kennedy said. "It is not critical at this point in time to bill for electrical usage. But we have the capability to do that if it becomes necessary."
Guy Talbott, who is a member of the Cabrillo Marina Advisory Committee, which helps the port set policy for the marina, said many sailboats and other craft in the marina never use electricity. He estimated that only 25% of the tenants plug into outlets.
Talbott, who keeps a 31-foot powerboat at the new marina, said the committee endorsed the move to eliminate the separate electricity charges.
"For the first three or four months there was a flat $10-a-month fee added on to each slip fee" for electricity, Talbott said. "They were going to read the meters every so often, and then adjust your fee and either compensate you or bill you for more. There were some complaints from people who never used their electricity but had to pay the $10 every month."
Talbott denied that the change amounted to free electricity for boaters, saying the costs will be absorbed in the monthly slip fee.
"There is no free ride here," Talbott said.