A judge has thrown out a 2017 increase in the fees charged to steer large ships in and out of Portland harbor, saying the sharp and sudden rate hike raises “a red flag.”
The Friday ruling came in a lawsuit brought against the board that oversees Maine’s busiest port by a Canadian company that operates the ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
In ruling against the Portland Board of Harbor Commissioners, Justice Lance Walker wrote that the regulatory body failed to do its due diligence in raising pilotage fees more than 50 percent last November.
The Maine Superior Court judge called the steep increase “highly irregular” and chided commissioners for considering the pilots’ costs but not how much money the two men who handle all piloting in Portland earn.
“Any intelligent exposition of a significant rate increase must by the rules of basic arithmetic include more than expenses, which are only half the equation,” Walker wrote.
The ruling represents hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in fees for foreign companies that frequent the port — including Bay Ferries LLC, which brought the suit, and Icelandic shipping giant Eimskip. It follows Gov. Paul LePage rebuking the decision as “anti-business” and calling for the commissioners to resign.
Board chairman Thomas Dobbins said Friday afternoon that he had just received the ruling and was not yet prepared to make a statement. A lawyer for Bay Ferries declined to comment.
State and federal law requires that a pilot guide large ships in and out of port. Beyond the minimum charge, the cost of this service is based on the size of the ship and amount of fuel used.
Walker did not weigh in on whether it was reasonable to increase the minimum pilotage fee to about $1,077, but rather sent the decision back to the board saying it hadn’t gathered enough information.
The ruling may force the two Portland pilots to open up their books and reveal their revenue, something the board had previously declined to require. A lawyer for the pilots said that they will comply with whatever the board determines to be necessary to honor the court’s ruling.
The pilots have said that they’ve lost money and been forced to cut staff in recent years, as the number of tankers entering the harbor to use the Portland-Montreal pipeline has dropped. They’ve said that the increased fee aligns with rates charged in other ports and is less than the daily cost of operating a pilot boat.
The harbor board is an autonomous government body with members appointed by Portland, South Portland and the state. In the spring of 2017, it raised the minimum pilotage fee roughly 70 percent to a $1,200 minimum — which prompted a lawsuit from Bay Ferries.
After the Canadian company sued, alleging an array of procedural irregularities and a cozy relationship between the board members and pilots, the regulator took the unusual step of overriding its decision from months earlier with the November rate change.
Walker’s Friday ruling vacates the board’s second decision, to set the minimum pilotage fee to $1,077. Bay Ferries’ challenge to the earlier rate hike is still pending before him.
It was not immediately clear whether the judge’s order reverts the pilot fee back to the $1,200 minimum approved in May of last year or the longtime minimum of $709.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter at: @JZBleiberg.
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