Some residents around Great Sacandaga Lake are concerned their access fees may soon increase thanks to a recommendation in a recent state comptroller’s audit of the lake’s regulating agency.
The audit of the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District, completed in November, makes nine recommendations for tightening financial practices, including a recommendation to “review the rates charged for Sacandaga Lake access and assess increasing the rates to keep pace with inflation.”
The audit notes the rates have not been adjusted since 2000, and by not reviewing them, the district “may not be maximizing revenue from them.”
Michael Clark, president of the regulating district, said the district’s board has discussed the option and will consider it, but he doesn’t see it as a high priority.
“The audit recommends that the board consider it, but that doesn’t mean that it would happen,” he said. “The total permit system revenue for the Hudson River area is only about 8 percent of the budget, so any increase makes a very small impact on our revenue stream.”
Total revenue from permits averages about $420,000 annually out of the regulating district’s $5.3 million total budget, he said.
In a letter to members of the Batchellerville Bridge Action Committee, a watchdog group of property owners with access permits to Great Sacandaga Lake, the group’s co-founder, Peter Van Avery, notes that at 2014’s inflation rate of 1.6 percent, the comptroller’s recommendation would mean an extra $6,720 for the district.
“Is that extra $6,720 going to be of much help in setting the District back on a sound financial footing?” he wrote. “It sort of looks like peanuts to me.”
There are currently about 4,800 access permits issued by the district, said Clark. The price of a permit varies by size. A 10-foot-wide access to the lake, for example, costs $43 per year, while a 100-foot access permit is $57.
“So the cost is not out of hand,” he said.
The district, created by the state in 1920 to regulate the Upper Hudson River and Black River watersheds, has been suffering financially since a 2008 U.S. Court of Appeals decision said it could not collect revenue for its operating costs from downstream hydroelectric power plants. That created a hole of about $4.5 million in the district’s $5.3 million budget.
The district then turned to the five downstream counties it charges for providing flood control in an attempt to patch that hole. After lengthy legal battles, the district eventually found a balance with the counties and the state in 2013 to repair its revenue stream.
In the meantime, capital projects, mostly upkeep of the Conklingville Dam that controls the waters of the Sacandaga River, have been put on hold, said Clark.
“We’re now getting back on track,” he said. “There’s not a lot of extra money, but we have a plan in place to accomplish those capital projects.”
Overall, he called the comptroller’s audit “extremely positive.”
“What the audit makes clear is that the board is fulfilling its fiscal responsibility and that we’re sound, and it said that explicitly,” he said. “The few other items that they had, I consider to be housekeeping.”
The other eight recommendations in the audit involved improving inventory practices, evaluating outstanding accounts, more promptly meeting federal and state safety guidelines, and improving record-keeping.
“The District has cut spending and taken other steps to balance its annual budgets,” the audit finds. “However, it could potentially generate more revenue and become more efficient by strengthening its practices over past-due assessments, facility maintenance, equipment inventories, time and attendance, and procurement.”
Van Avery, who lives in Niskayuna but has owned a property on the lake for more than 50 years, has worried from the start that the district’s financial troubles would be passed down to the owners of camps and houses along the lake.
When the federal court decision was announced in early 2009, he warned that permit holders had “a target on their backs.”
So far, the district seems to be in no hurry to greatly increase fees. Clark said no “reasonable” fee increase would make much of a dent in the budget.
“There will be plenty of opportunity for public input, and it’s something that would take course over an entire year,” said Clark, “but I don’t sense right now that there’s a huge motivation to increase permit fees.”
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