A state-appointed advisory board hopes to increase snowmobile registration fees to improve Maine’s trails and ease the economic burden on the volunteers who maintain them, officials said Wednesday.
State Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, plans to introduce a bill on behalf of the state Snowmobile Trail Advisory Council that would increase snowmobile registration fees much more than the hikes proposed by the Maine Snowmobile Association on Tuesday.
The idea, Patrick said, is to improve trail quality while offsetting the rising costs that the state’s 290 snowmobile clubs carry as they voluntarily groom the state’s 14,500 miles of snowmobile trails. The state charges an in-state resident snowmobile registration fee of $40. Out-of-staters pay $88.
“The thing they [advisory council members] are looking at is that they don’t have enough revenue,” Patrick said Wednesday. “What we are looking to do is direct the money to the clubs’ grooming accounts. If the quality of trails goes down, you will see less riders and less license fees, and we want to stay competitive with New Hampshire and other states that offer snowmobiling.”
Exactly how much of a fee increase Patrick’s bill would propose is unclear. He has registered a bill title with the Legislature already and will work out the wording of the bill with advisory council members in a few weeks, he said.
Last year, the council urged the Maine Snowmobile Association to establish a $20 late fee for resident and nonresident snowmobiles registered after Dec. 31, with all money going to the trail fund. Under the present system about $21 of the $40 in-state registration fee goes to the fund. The rest goes to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for law enforcement on trails and administration costs.
In addition, the advisory council sought a $10 increase in the resident and nonresident seasonal registrations fees and a $5 increase in the nonresident three-day registration fee, which would propel that fee to $48. The council also proposed a new seven-day nonresident registration fee of $68.
MSA Executive Director Bob Meyers said Tuesday that his organization hopes to propose legislation that would increase state registration fees $20 each for residents and nonresidents who fail to register their snowmobiles by Dec. 15. That would mean that residents would pay $60 for snowmobiles registered after Dec. 15 and the nonresident fee would be $108.
MSA and the advisory council agree that some increase is warranted. Diesel fuel prices, for example, have risen 200 percent over the last 10 years compared with only a 33 percent registration fee increase over the same period, said Rick LeVasseur, the council’s chairman.
Those increases would go a long way toward balancing the books for the 290 clubs, which right now are running about $1 million in the red, Meyers said. Last year was especially difficult, with snowmobile registrations down to 62,000 compared with the 85,000-90,000 the state usually gets.
The state snowmobile club grant program usually raises about $4 million annually for trail grooming and equipment maintenance, with the goal of paying about 70 percent of club expenses, Meyers said.
Clubs raise the rest of the money through fundraisers and funds from their host towns.
“Even before last year, the system was falling behind every year,” said Richard Merrill, an advisory council member and president of the Snow Valley Sno-Goers club of Andover, which has about 40 members. “The money coming to clubs hasn’t increased at all, and they have to have the same amount of money every year to do the work.”
State budget curtailments, debt from previous years and decreased registrations forced a 10 percent snowmobile club grant cut last year. Another 10 percent reduction is expected this year, Meyers said.
The biggest difference between MSA and the council is in outlook. Meyers said he fears that a steep fee increase would alienate the in-state family snowmobile rider that he sees as the state’s prime customer.
LeVasseur believes that high-end snowmobilers, particularly out-of-staters, would gladly pay a significant increase in fees to ride Maine trails, especially since Maine registration fees are much lower than those charged in other New England states and Canada.
It is cheaper, LeVasseur said, for New Hampshire and Vermont residents to ride in Maine at Maine’s nonresident fee of $88 than to ride in New Hampshire, where residents pay $96, or Vermont. Vermont residents pay a total of $165 to ride there, he said.
With snowmobiles costing about $9,000, helmets $150 to $400 and snowmobile suits at least $300, snowmobilers can easily pay more to ride in Maine, LeVasseur said.