A HARBOUR authority in Co Wicklow was “mistakenly” imposing fees set without ministerial approval for 20 years, a report prepared for former minister for transport Noel Dempsey has found.
Between 1987 and 2007, Arklow Harbour Commissioners did not apply for harbour rate orders, as required under the Harbours Act 1946.
The due diligence report, seen by The Irish Times, was written for the Department of Transport as part of a process to transfer responsibility for the harbour to Wicklow County Council and after a complaint by a commercial company using the harbour, Island Shipping.
The report stated that instead of applying for the orders from the minister, the authority “mistakenly believed that they could revise the charges themselves” and followed “incorrect procedure” to increase charges at the harbour.
The move meant increases imposed over the 20-year period on harbour users, including workboats, fishing vessels and pleasure craft, had no legal basis.
Since December 2009, new rates have been introduced with the approval of the minister and through statutory instrument, as required by the 1946 Act.
The report stated that Island Shipping took a case against the authority seeking the refund of some fees and in 2009 settled its case.
It was refunded €8,500, according to the report, and the Circuit Court awarded costs against the commissioners, understood to be in the region of €40,000.
The report also examined concerns about “vested interests” on the board of the authority.
It found the 1946 Act did not contain any provisions against membership of a harbour authority by “vested interests”.
“The collegiate election system set out in the Act promotes membership of the authority by those with an interest in the port,” it said.
A second legal case is expected to go ahead in the coming months initiated by boat owner Bruce Hoskin, whose €80,000 vessel was confiscated on foot of unpaid fees. He also disputed the fees imposed by the authority.
Former harbour commissioners board member Peter Dempsey, who resigned earlier this year, said the authority continued to pursue boat owners who had withheld fees up until last month.
The Independent Arklow town councillor, who is also a fisherman, said the authority had since written to harbour users and said there would be a full review of accounts and “no action whatsoever” would be “instituted or contemplated” against the boat owners or their vessels.
Mr Dempsey said he resigned from the board of the authority in January because he could not go along with what it was doing. He expressed concern at the likely cost of fighting a case against Mr Hoskin and said the organisation was wrong to go down the legal route.
“The harbour commissioners should re-examine whose interests they are looking after,” he said.
Paddy Mordaunt, the chairman of Arklow Harbour Commissioners, said he could not comment on the report for legal reasons.