WEST NEWBURY — Selectmen have agreed to purchase a new pump-out boat, but are insisting the harbormaster program be made revenue-neutral going forward. The unanimous vote came during a meeting July 22 in which selectmen revisited the value of offering pump-out services to boaters along the Merrimack River.
Some feel the pump-out program uses taxpayer dollars for a service that benefits only a few in town. Still others argue the program is critical to maintaining water quality and environmental protections in the 5-mile portion of the river that runs through West Newbury.
After a presentation by Harbormaster Jim Riley and Finance Committee Chairman Dave Kapturowski on July 8, selectmen agreed to sign off on a state grant funded by the federal Clean Vessels Act that would allow the town to purchase a new pump-out vessel. As part of the CVA grant, the state reimburses 75 percent of costs associated with the purchase and the program, as long as the boat is used to provide pump-out services.
The current boat, built in 1997, has a faulty motor that would cost the town around $8,000 to replace. During the budget process last March, selectmen encouraged Riley to seek grant funds for the motor replacement. However, in June, Riley and Finance Director Tracy Blais were advised by the grantor to apply for money for a new boat instead because the grant program had unused funds available that needed to be used by the end of the fiscal year.
The grant will cover $64,750 of the $65,000 price tag to buy a new, larger boat. All equipment would be transferred from the current boat, which would then be swapped for an upgraded trailer for the new boat.
But Selectman Tom Atwood said that following the July 8 meeting, more information surfaced that made him question his vote. Comparing it to the process used by the Board of Fire Engineers in seeking to fund a new aerial ladder truck two years ago, Atwood said the proposal presented was incomplete, inaccurate and rushed. There was no mention on July 8 of the need for a new trailer and the assertion made by Riley and Kapturowski that doing away with the pump-out service would result in raw sewage being dumped into the river was simply untrue, Atwood said.
"Fact gathering should not be rushed," Atwood said. "I would have voted differently if I had known all the facts."
Riley reminded Atwood that he had apologized at the time for the hurried manner in which the grant was being presented, noting that he had received late notice about the availability of the extra funds and the need to apply quickly in order to qualify. He didn't mention the plan to swap the old boat for a new trailer because at the time that information was not available, he said.
Atwood said numerous residents contacted him with concerns over funding a service that benefits only a relatively small segment of the town's population. Boaters can pump out their vessels at the same time they go to get gas, he said, noting that there are pump-out facilities available around the clock at Cashman Park in Newburyport and Amesbury and through the Newburyport harbormaster from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Former Selectman John McGrath said that regardless of whether the town offers pump-out services, any boater caught illegally dumping effluent would be either subject to town bylaws or state and federal laws depending on the jurisdiction in which the violation occurred.
But Kapturowski made the case for establishing a No Discharge Area in West Newbury.
"Part of the requirement for establishing the river as a NDA is assuring adequate pump-out facilities. Therefore, the harbormaster's pump-out program is vital to maintaining the environmental quality of West Newbury and should not be viewed as a convenience to yachtsman on the river," Kapturowski wrote in a memo to town leaders.
Riley said that besides pump-out services, the boat is used twice a month with a crew from the Merrimack River Watershed Council for water quality testing from Haverhill to Newburyport. It is equipped with basic lifesaving medical equipment and cold water rescue gear. It's also used to control speeding, "and we now have on loan from the Fire Department a spare pump that can be used to de-water a sinking boat or be used for firefighting," Riley said following the meeting.
Riley, a call firefighter, acknowledged that the Fire Department has access to a small motorized raft. But the raft is hard to launch at low tide, so having a boat already in the water could save precious rescue minutes, he stressed. Former Selectman Albert Knowles Jr. agreed, calling it "an immeasurable benefit to the town as a whole."
"It's a small amount of money in order to provide a huge service to the town," Riley said.
Selectmen Chairman Glenn Kemper acknowledged the grant presentation may have been lacking, but reminded the newer selectman that his board had thoroughly reviewed the harbormaster program earlier this spring as part of the budget process. He recommended holding off until Selectman Dick Cushing, who was not there, was present to make any further decisions about it.
At a cost of $800 per year after state reimbursement, "it's a fairly inexpensive program, if you decide to run it," Blais said. She pointed out that the town has a binding contract with the marina to purchase the boat, but said that the Groveland finance director told her his town would likely seek the purchase if West Newbury wanted to get out of it.
"We have a grant contract that the town has executed. We have a boat that's being delivered in two weeks. Can you just take a vote?" Blais urged selectmen.
Kemper said he disagreed with Atwood's premise that taxpayer money shouldn't be used to pay for a program that is primarily of benefit to boaters.
"There are certain taxes that people pay that they don't benefit from," Kemper said. "It's about what kind of town you want to have; what kind of services you want to provide."
But Atwood insisted he could only support the new purchase if the program were made revenue-neutral going forward by raising docking and mooring fees.