Gilford — May 8, 2011 — It might take longer for boaters to get help from the New Hampshire Marine Patrol this summer. The number of officers patrolling the state’s 975 water bodies and its coastline could drop from 80 to 48 if the state adopts a House proposal to cut 20 percent from the Marine Patrol’s $5 million budget, officials confirmed last week.
“The response time can be seriously affected if these cuts take effect,” Lt. Timothy Dunleavy said while aboard the M/S Mount Washington on Monday during the vessel’s annual inspection.
About one-quarter of the agency’s boater education classes would be eliminated, and maintenance on the its fleet of 94 vessels would be deferred.
The House legislation also looks to absorb the Marine Patrol into the auspices of the New Hampshire State Police; move the Tramway Bureau to Fire Safety; and remove the user-fee element of the funding that the Marine Patrol has enjoyed since 1998. Boaters pay about $3 million to operate the department, but this past year, almost $1 million was taken for the general fund.
Boaters are not happy about their money “going into the big black hole,” said Jeff Thurston, co-owner of Thurston Marine in Weirs Beach.
“Boaters are being told to pay and get nothing for it,” Thurston said. “It’s mean-spirited. Everyone who is paying a boater registration needs to question what they are getting now.” The user fee has “made all the sense in the world.”
David T. Barrett, director of the Division of Safety Services Marine Patrol Bureau, said he would have to cut 12 seasonal positions and four full-time positions for the summer if the budget is cut. The Marine Auxiliary, a group of volunteers who do not have arrest authority but do other work for the Marine Patrol, would have to be disbanded, he said.
Thurston said the “consequences of that move are difficult to imagine.” The department must pay to train and provide uniforms for auxiliary members, and that expense is also on the cutting board. Members of the auxiliary use their own boats and pay for their own gas.
Barrett said the agency will finish its current training of officers, but probably won’t have jobs to offer them if the House version stands.
“The Senate isn’t in yet,” he said, noting there is still a chance that funding would be restored within the budget.
“We are hoping that the Senate will identify the need.”
Dunleavy noted that there are many islands on the Big Lake, and residents look to the Marine Patrol to help them in emergencies.
“We are often the first to arrive” at medical emergencies, domestic disputes and notifications of next of kin in cases where there has been a family death. “Regardless of the nature of the call, we respond,” he said.
Over the past decade, boat registrations in New Hampshire have gone from a high of 102,258 in 2005 to a low of 95,402 in 2009. They improved by about 200 new vessels in 2010; figures for 2011 have not been compiled, according to the Department of Safety statistics. The total number of boat registrations may depend on such factors as gas prices, the weather and the economy.
Since 1998, the money has been held in a dedicated fund for the Marine Patrol. Federal funding of about $1.1 million has been cut by about $100,000 for the coming year. Barrett notes the federal amount is tied to how much the state gives the Marine Patrol.
The Marine Patrol’s mission is to provide for safety and response to emergencies on the state’s public waters and to place and maintain in water bodies more than 5,000 aids to navigation.
Calls for the Marine Patrol’s service went up from 1,931 in 2009 to 2,385 in 2010. There were three calls for accidents resulting in a fatality in 2010 and six accidents resulting in a fatality in 2009. There were fewer accidents resulting in injury, however, in 2010, down from 33 to 23. Already this year, there has been one fatality, when the operator of a hovercraft died on Lake Winnipesaukee.
In 2010, there were 15 boating-while-intoxicated arrests, up from nine in 2009.
Most of the Marine Patrol’s work is in issuing warnings and summonses involving watercraft, but those figures have gone down over the past decade. In 2003, when there were 100,835 registered New Hampshire vessels, there were 4,734 warnings and 1,673 summonses issued; in 2010, there were 2,877 warnings and 1,386 summonses issued.
Speed enforcement statistics for the first two years of the boat-speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee showed there was only one summons for a violation in 2009, but eight issued in 2010. There were 72 warnings for speed in a no-wake zone on Winnipesaukee in 2010, and 41 in 2009, according to Department of Safety statistics.
Copyright N.H. Union Leader