Boat owners want user fee scuttled

May 19, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Ken Bacham looks at his 45-foot, tall-rigged Morgan sloop as a floating retirement haven after his years on the District of Columbia Fire Department.

Uncle Sam looks at it and sees an annual $100 user fee.

Sometime around July, the federal government will hit Mr. Bacham and many other boaters with a fee ranging from $25 to $100, depending on the size of their craft, unless it's scuttled by a bill now winding its way through Congress.

"It's such an unfair tax," said Mr. Bacham, who also owns a 25-foot Donzi ($35 a year for the U.S. Treasury) and who, like other mariners, rejects the term "user fee."

"They call it a fee, but it is a tax," said Michael Hulett from aboard his 27-foot Nor-Sea sailboat at Annapolis City Dock, noting that the money would be deposited in the government's general fund rather than used for U.S. Coast Guard activities. "I feel boaters are being singled out."

For George Halfpop of Upper Marlboro, perched on the "Can Do," a 30-foot Sea Ray -- it would carry a $50 levy -- this was the

first he'd heard of the user fee. He ticked off the higher gas tax and other expenses that already burden boaters. "Geez, like it's not expensive enough to run a boat," he sighed.

The planned user fee, approved under the federal budget act last fall, would apply to recreational boats that exceed 16 feet in length.

Hand-powered vessels such as canoes and kayaks, and boats with sails attached to an unsupported mast, would be exempt.

About 4.1 million of the 10 million registered boats in the United States would be subject to the user fee, including about half the 152,303 pleasure boats owned in Maryland.

Coast Guard officials are now working on a way to collect the fee, which could include a mail-in or phone-in payment to receive a decal. Collections are expected to begin as early as July. Boat owners who don't comply face a fine of $5,000.

Last week the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee's Coast Guard subcommittee approved by voice vote a measure that would rescind the proposed user fee.

"It is wrong to single out one segment of our society to resolve the budget deficit," said Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st, a member of the Coast Guard subcommittee and co-sponsor of the measure to kill the fees.

The full House Merchant Marine Committee is expected to take up the measure in coming weeks. There are 150 House co-sponsors, including Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th. A companion measure introduced in the Senate and pending before the Energy and Commerce Committee has seven co-sponsors, none of whom is from Maryland.

The fee is expected to raise $718 million over the next five years, but Mr. Gilchrest and other detractors note that none of the money would be dedicated to Coast Guard activities. "Individual boaters must pay this boat-use fee blindly into the general treasury but are receiving no additional services," he said.

"This is a middle-class tax, not a tax to soak the rich," said Michael G. Sciulla, vice president of BOAT-US, the Boat Owners Association of the United States. The association is energizing its 385,000 members to battle the fee in Congress. "It's simply a revenue-raising measure," he said.

Mr. Bacham said there's "a lot of angry talk" among boaters about the fee, and many have written letters to members of Congress.

The fee, which has been pushed every year since 1981 by the Reagan and Bush administrations, finally took hold last year when the Senate directed the Coast Guard to come up with the user fee on recreational boaters. The House, under pressure to meet budget targets, later went along with the proposal.

The Coast Guard chief of staff, Rear Adm. Robert T. Nelson, recommended last month against rescinding the fee in testimony before the Coast Guard subcommittee. Although he acknowledged that the money would not go directly to the Coast Guard, he said the fee "is intended to require that recreational boaters bear a larger share of the cost of existing Coast Guard programs from which they benefit."

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