OCEAN CITY — In response to a public outcry from boat owners, dealers and marina operators, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last week announced it planned to scale back proposed dramatic increases in boat registration fees.
House Bill 1307 as written would increase registration fees for boats in Maryland by as much as 100 percent in most cases with the revenue dedicated to the Waterway Improvement Fund. However, after meeting with and listening to concerns about the dramatic increases from various stakeholders, DNR officials announced last week they plan to propose amendments to the legislation that would significantly reduce the hikes.
Since 1965, Maryland has imposed a 5-percent excise tax on vessels to create a major source of revenue for the Waterway Improvement Fund, which finances a wide variety of projects and services to promote, develop and maintain the state’s public waterways. The DNR needs an estimated $41 million annually to maintain boating operations including dredging and maintaining 265 channels, over 400 public boating facilities, 3,600 buoys and marine police operations.
However, a dramatic decrease in boat sales due to the sagging economy has reduced fund revenues to only $15 million, or about a third of what is needed, leaving the state unable to fund many of the critical projects. For example, during the current fiscal year, the DNR was only able to fund about 11 percent of the state and local grant requests from the Waterway Improvement Fund. In addition, the DNR’s federal partner, the Army Corps of Engineers, has recently indicated it can no provide the estimated $6 million in annual funds needed to maintain over 60 shallow water boating channels used by recreational boaters, commercial watermen and marine-related businesses in Maryland.
To that end, DNR officials introduced proposed legislation that would significantly increase annual boater registration fees in an attempt to make up the lost revenue. Currently, the annual fee for registering a boat under 16 feet in length is $25; the fee for boats 16-32 feet is $75; the fee for boats 32-45 feet is $125; the fee for boats 45-65 feet is $250; and the fee for boats longer than 65 feet is $350.
The DNR’s initial version of House Bill 1307 would double the fee structure. For example, the fee for a vessel under 16 feet would go from $25 annually to $50 and so forth up the line with the fee for a boat 65 feet or longer jumping from $350 to $700.
Under the new proposal, the fee for a vessel under 16 feet would go back to $25 every two years; the fee for a boat 16-21 feet would be $50; the fee for a vessel 21-32 feet would be $75; 32-45 feet would be $100; 45-65 feet would be $200; and 65-feet-plus would be $300. DNR Secretary John Griffin said this week the proposed scale back came on the heels of serious concerns raised by stakeholders.
“We hope these proposed fee reductions strike a better balance among the competing factors of affordability to boaters, recession impacts on boat sales and the growing unmet needs to maintain our boating assets,” he said. “With some of the most magnificent waterways in the country, we must work together to keep our boating safe and enjoyable.”
State boating industry leaders praised the scaled back fee structure.
“We appreciate the department taking into consideration the concerns of the Maryland boating industry by significantly reducing the proposed boat registration costs to a level that is acceptable to our boat dealers and marinas,” said Susan Zellers, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland.