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Struggle to Stay Afloat

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For decades, the sloops and motorboats that slice across Ventura County’s lakes and harbors have helped pay for ramps, marina slips and safety programs across California.

But now a government downsizing plan proposed by Gov. Pete Wilson would dump the tens of millions of dollars that recreational boaters give the state each year into a fund for all state parks--a proposal that has drawn the ire of boat owners and harbor managers.

“There are 860,000 registered boats across California,” said Jim Clark, a Ventura Keys resident who heads the Recreational Boaters of California. “By the year 2010, they forecast 1.4 million boats. Where are you going to put them?”

In April, Wilson proposed doing away with the Department of Boating and Waterways, a little-known agency that promotes boating safety and awards loans and grants to pay for small harbors and boat launches.

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Now, as state legislators pick at the details of Wilson’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, boaters and harbor officials are organizing to save the 53-employee department.

The boating and waterways department spends about $42 million a year. But it also administers $70 million or so deposited into a revolving loan fund for harbors and watercraft projects. That fund helped build boat launches at the Ventura Harbor and Lake Piru.

But the loan fund would be eliminated and the department’s functions transferred to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, under Wilson’s multi-pronged effort to make government more efficient.

“Where there are redundancies in state government, it is our effort to do away with them,” said Andy McLeod, spokesman for the California Resources Agency, which oversees the Department of Boating and Waterways. “We’re trying to save taxpayers money.”

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But boaters fear park officials will not give the same emphasis to waterways projects now done by the boating agency. They also fret that money generated by boaters--gas taxes and registration fees--will be wrongly diverted to other uses.

State law requires that money be reserved for its intended use, said Los Angeles attorney Richard Fine, who sued the government in 1994 for diverting money from various special accounts to the state’s general fund.

Fine settled the case in February, and the government pledged to repay the diverted money to the special funds. For boating and waterways, that amounts to $20 million, plus interest.

“Parks and recreation would like to get the boating and waterways money so they can use it,” Fine said. “That would be bad for the boaters because boating and waterways looks out for the boaters.

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“Parks doesn’t have the same interests,” he said.

Clark was more blunt. “First they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” he said. “Now they want to steal the cookie jar.”

Boating and waterways employees have been told not to comment publicly on Wilson’s recommendation. But one worker said privately that the idea makes no sense.

“He picked the worst department to close as an illustration of privatization and making government more efficient,” the employee said. “We haven’t grown in 35 years.”

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McLeod said parks department officials would continue to promote boating safety and award grants for boat-ramp projects.

But he did acknowledge that the loan program, which funds small harbors and other marina improvements, was slated for elimination.

“We see a diminished need for public money to create marinas,” McLeod said. “But access [to waterways] is justified and a recognized benefit to the community. We are not completely closing the door to that sort of grant.”

Douglas West, recreation manager at the Lake Piru Recreation Area, is not so certain.

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He said closing the Department of Boating and Waterways would threaten grant programs like the ones that paid for the three boat launches at Lake Piru.

“It stinks,” West said. “It’s a lousy idea. But it’s a typical example of government raiding user fees to pay for other programs. It’s happening all over.”

Richard B. Chess, chairman of the Ventura Port District board, is equally suspicious. “That department has been highly effective over the past years,” Chess wrote to Wilson. “This would be a disservice to the boating public.”

Meanwhile, recreational boaters like Clark have printed up fliers and campaign buttons in support of the boating agency. They also have written to state lawmakers, some of whom have pledged to fight the closure plan.

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“The California Department of Boating and Waterways has been a leader in its field,” reads a letter signed by state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “I will fight the governor’s planned dismissal. . . to ensure that the integrity of the services the Department of Boating and Waterways currently provides are maintained,” Thompson wrote.

A committee of Senate and Assembly members will debate Wilson’s closure plan at budget hearings throughout this month.


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