Portland Board of Harbor Commissioners did not have enough evidence to justify a massive hike in harbor pilot fees for large ships last November, according to a ruling by a state judge.
In a ruling Friday, Justice Lance Walker called the sudden steep fee increase approved by the commission a “red flag” and vacated the board’s vote.
Board members voted in November to set a mandatory fee of $1,077 per trip in and out of the harbor for large vessels after reviewing pilot fees charged at other ports in the northeast.
That fee replaced a $1,200 per-trip fee the board approved in May 2017, at the request of the Portland Pilots, the company that guides large ships into port.
The new fee was almost twice the $709 per-trip fee charged the year before.
Bay Ferries Ltd., the Canadian company that operates a ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, challenged that decision on the grounds the board did not follow the legal procedure before setting the new rate.
Harold Pachios, a partner at Preti Flaherty representing Bay Ferries, declined to comment on Monday.
Walker, in his ruling, said the board could not know if the fee increase was justified because they never asked for the Portland Pilots financial records to find out how much it costs to run the service.
“The only means by which the board can confidently determine a just a reasonable fee is to examine, among other things, the costs of providing pilotage services in Portland Harbor in relation to how much income pilots stand to generate given a particular fee scheme and the number and types of vessels calling upon this port,” Walker concluded.
The Pilots had told board members they needed higher fees to support their business, which has struggled as large ship traffic to Portland Harbor declined in recent years.
Without looking at the company’s records, there is no way board members could know if that is the truth, Walker said. The board’s comparison of pilot fees in other ports was not enough to base a fee increase because it did not take into account the size of ships and how many were coming to each port, Walker added.
“While not entirely irrelevant, fees charged by other ports are not, standing alone, conclusive as to whether the fee in Portland is just and reasonable,” Walker wrote.
In an interview Monday, Board Chairman Tom Dobbins said the ruling was disappointing.
“We thought we had done what the court wanted originally,” Dobbins said.
The board is scheduled to meet with its attorney in executive session Tuesday.
“We thought we had a good case,” he said. “We will look at it and decide how we are going to handle it from there.”
Since the November rate increase has been vacated, the legal minimum fee is the one set in 2016, Dobbins added. The Pilots have not requested a rate increase this year, he said.
Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at: