WEST NEWBURY — Harbormaster James F. Riley says nobody asked him, but if they had, he would have told them it was a bad move — both environmentally and economically — to cut funding for a program designed to preserve the 7 miles of riverfront that runs through West Newbury.
The Board of Selectmen agreed last week to reduce to $1 both the wages and expenses for the harbormaster position next year as part of a balanced budget recommendation from Finance Director Tracy Blais.
This year's harbormaster budget included $2,500 in wages and $500 in expenses; next year's proposed budget was initially $2,500 for wages and $2,000 for expenses, before selectmen made the cut. The program could continue on a volunteer basis, Blais suggested.
In an interview on Friday, Riley said he was surprised he didn't hear from town leaders before they decided to cut the funding.
"Nobody sent me a letter or asked me a question. I would think they would want my input," said Riley, a certified harbormaster, who has also worked for 11 years as a reserve police officer and is a firefighter and EMT in town.
As harbormaster, Riley is tasked with keeping the portion of the Merrimack River that runs through West Newbury clean and safe. He and a few volunteers provide pump-out services to watercraft sanitary systems and periodically patrol the river. They also service boats in Haverhill, Merrimac, Groveland and parts of Amesbury.
Riley notes with pride that, on his watch, the American bald eagle has once again been spotted nesting and raising young along the riverbank in West Newbury — "a testament" to the success of the harbormaster program. Keeping the river clean at this end affects a variety of wildlife along the riverbanks, shellfish beds at the mouth of the river — even Plum Island and Salisbury beaches, he noted.
In addition, the harbormaster enforces speed limits, creating safe waters for all and limiting riverbank erosion.
"It will be a huge step backwards if they don't keep this program running," he said.
From early spring to late fall, Riley and his assistants provide pump-out services on Friday nights, all day Saturday and Sunday, and often Monday mornings, too.
As of August 2008, totals for boats moored or docked within proposed No Discharge areas under Riley's purview were: Amesbury, 235; Haverhill, 183; Merrimac, 10; and West Newbury, 81. Statistics for Groveland were not available, and overall boat activity is notably higher when boats that pass through town without docking are factored in, Riley said.
At this point in the season, he would typically be working on getting the boat ready for service. As was the case last year, Riley anticipates that the poor economy and high fuel costs will keep boaters "vacationing at the docks" — resulting in more calls for dockside pump-outs.
The harbormaster program is supported with a state grant funded through the federal Clean Vessels Act. It pays 75 percent of costs directly related to pumping out effluent — boat sewage containing bacteria, viruses and chemicals harmful to water quality and public health.
"We have to spend all programming money upfront, and the grant will reimburse us up to 75 percent of wages and expenses paid — but they must relate directly to 'pump-outs,'" Blais said. "They won't reimburse for people taking a harbormaster class, but they will reimburse for wages paid to personnel who are performing pump-outs along the river."
The CVA grant — funded through tax surcharges on marine fuel and other fishing-related items — was established at the federal level in 1992 and adopted in Massachusetts in 1994. West Newbury has participated in the program for 12 years. Former police Chief Jonathon Dennis held the harbormaster position prior to Riley. Voters first appropriated wages for the post in the amount of $2,000 in fiscal year 2006.
According to MGL Chapter 102, Section 19, any town with harbors that "have been improved by the expenditure of money by the commonwealth shall appoint a harbor master and assistant harbor masters and fix their compensation ... said appointment shall remain in force unless the harbor master is removed for neglect of duty, negligence or conduct unbecoming a harbor master."
As part of the grant, the town is provided with a boat it can use at any time during the day or night for water emergencies — like sinking vessels, river-related car accidents or rafters in trouble floating down the river.
A faulty motor on the boat that could cost $12,000 to replace was one reason selectmen cited for not fully funding the position in the upcoming year.
When reached on Thursday, Blais said the grant would reimburse 75 percent of costs for the new motor up to the grant limit, as long as it met grant specifications. The award is currently capped at $8,500; however, if selectmen wish to continue the program, Blais said she could contact the grant agency to request an increase for next year to recoup more for the cost of the motor.
Riley said he had already begun looking into making the request himself when he learned of the drastic cut to his budget.
Police Chief Lisa Holmes, who appointed Riley to the post, praised his knowledge, experience and training in last year's annual town report. "I want to thank him for his countless hours on the river this past boating season ... This vessel provides an invaluable service to the police and fire departments in their rescue efforts and we are thankful to Jim Riley for his willingness to respond at any given moment," Holmes wrote.
"This is a win-win situation for the town," Riley said. "I think they're being penny wise and pound foolish."
The approved FY2010 budget includes $12.5 million in revenue projections, $238,155 in state assessments and cherry sheet offsets, a $10,604,584 line item budget, $1.7 million in warrant requests and a 2 percent salary increase for all employees. Selectmen are recommending funding the budget without a tax override.