The old man and the fee

December 04, 2005

The watermen of Smith Island are an independent bunch. Even by the standards of watermen. Maybe that's what comes from living on Maryland's only inhabited offshore island. Visitors may find the place quaint, but it takes a certain rugged self-reliance to live there. Government has a modest presence. Cars may be left unregistered, police are infrequent visitors, and disputes are apt to be settled by the island's close-knit families or by the church.

So it should come as no surprise that Somerset County has had trouble collecting boat slip fees from Smith Island watermen. The county has maintained a 26-slip marina in Tylerton for decades. Boat owners are charged $400 annually to rent a slip - the same amount they'd be charged at any of the county's other marinas. So how much do you suppose the county collected in boat slip fees from Smith Island over the years?

Much to the chagrin of county officials, the answer is zero. That's right. Nothing. For at least a generation, Tylerton's watermen have been Maryland's most effective tax protesters. Not one had paid for the use of the county marina.

Needless to say, this troubled county officials. And it really annoyed boat owners who have dutifully paid their fees at Somerset's other marinas. But finding the proper incentive to get watermen to pay is another matter.

So the county recently did something clever. The county commissioners decided to declare the Tylerton marina surplus property and solicited the public for offers. A handful of potential buyers applied. The high bid was $59,000, by the way. But the sale didn't go through. It didn't have to.

The watermen, recognizing that no private owner would be so lax in collections (or charge so little for a boat slip in a protected harbor, or even choose to maintain the facility as a watermen's marina), reversed course. As of today, they're all paid up. Every nickel.

Of course, it wouldn't be fair to judge the watermen harshly. Theirs is still a hardscrabble life of long days, low pay and hard labor. And one day, the juggernaut of waterfront development that has transformed villages from Rock Hall to Cambridge will sweep across their island, too. But for the moment, it's nice to see one example where government privatization actually worked - if only as a threat.

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