The future of a tourism operator in Tutukaka is in jeopardy after the local marina trust revoked its permission to operate, upsetting other operators and the community.
Yukon Dive, one of several charter boat operators at the Tutukaka marina, received notice last week from the Tutukaka Marina Management Trust (TMMT) saying they won't be allowed to take out passengers from the marina after May 31.
This follows a dispute between Yukon and the trust over almost a year about a significant increase in the levy commercial operators have to pay.
Yukon Dive co-owner Jo Thomson said the decision by TMMT was "disappointing" and "disarming".
"We have constantly tried to engage with the trust without success. We have always been happy to pay a fair levy in accordance with the Memorandum of Lease between [Whangārei District Council] and TMMT."
However, the increased levy wasn't feasible anymore.
The trust refused to comment, saying it was a legal matter.
The documents provided to the Northern Advocate by Yukon Dive show that in August last year, TMMT billed Yukon Dive $17,480 for taking passengers to the Poor Knights Islands, to be paid a year in advance - a 575 per cent increase in costs for the business.
In a September letter, the trust says the levy was raised to help maintain marina facilities. They say several major projects "crucial for marina operation" were under way, such as water system upgrades, fuel tank
replacement, large carpark sealing work and marina-wide electrical warrant of fitness certification.
But Thomson said operators paid an annual service fee for that purpose.
So far, Yukon Dive has paid $4369.98 of the bill, "as an act of good faith", as Thomson explained, indicating that they are still willing to contribute to the levy.
However, they continue to dispute the invoice, plus a 18 per cent interest fee the trust has said it would impose for late payment from September.
Thomson explains the new levy was based on the survey numbers for each vessel, which doesn't reflect the actual number of people they take out and wasn't relative to their income.
"For example, we have one vessel that is surveyed for 40 people, on rare occasion we may take 25 for special events, however generally [it] only takes 12 people on an overnight trip."
The new levy also didn't allow for bad weather or scenarios such as the current pandemic, Thomson pointed out.
In a July letter, the trust states: "The trustees believe that the adoption of a charge based on an independently certified capacity provides an objective assessment upon which to base the new levy and is transparent to the trust an all commercial operators."
Before that, the operators paid $1 per passenger at the end of each year.
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The trust had invited Yukon Dive to a meeting in May last year to indicate that the levy might change, but Thomson said communication had since been difficult.
According to Thomson, TMMT recently suggested a confidential meeting with a small group of trustees. She said although Yukon Dive appreciated the offer," it is not for the purpose of a secret meeting with a few trust members to discuss our 'debt'".
"We do not consider it to be our debt because we continue to dispute the basis and legality of the invoice."
Yukon Dive is now taking the issue to the Disputes Tribunal.
Tutukaka Marina landlord, the Whangārei District Council (WDC), saysits lawyers have reviewed relevant documents and concluded that WDC had no legal right to direct any of the parties involved in any way in this dispute.
"We have explained this to each party several times," Rob Forlong, WDC chief executive, said.
Forlong explained that TMMT was required to inform council when it sets fees, and it did so a year ago.
"In April last year the trust informed council that it would lifting the fees charged to commercial operators berthed in the marina, to align with the fees charged for other commercial operators in other marinas across Northland, for instance at Opua.
"The rationale was that the size of the commercial vessels meant that the wash as they came and went, and the frequency of their coming and going was, and had been for some time, causing excessive wear and tear, which was creating expensive maintenance and repair costs that were being born disproportionately by owners of non-commercial, less-often used recreational vessels which caused less wear and tear and maintenance and repair costs."
The council said the trust had to consult the commercial operators affected.
Forlong said council's only role now was to urge the parties to find a way to resolve the dispute in a way that minimises harm and allows everyone to continue to operate.
Neighbouring charter boat operator Dive! Tutukaka's levy has increased 300 per cent..
"It has been very difficult – to say the least – to work with this trust, and we were forced into paying these extra fees," Jeroen Jongejans, director of Dive!Tutukaka, said.
"We had one unsatisfactory meeting with the trust. We tried to work out a reasonable sum of money we should give them because we're not against making contributions to the community – all operators do that."
Jongejans labelled the trust's decision to revoke Yukon Dive's permission to operate as a "very bad move" considering the current Covid-19 environment.
"We supply a lot of jobs and income for Tutukaka, but our ability to keep on working and keep jobs open for people has been compromised."
He said a number of operators found it equally difficult to work with the trust.
"The lack of good governance makes it hard for businesses to operate over here."
Jongejans and Thomson criticised the makeup of the trust saying not many interest groups – including iwi, women and commercial operators – were represented.
A petition launched by a Tutukaka resident to save Yukon Dive from closure has received more than 2000 signatures in three days.
Thomson said they were overwhelmed by the support.