Taxpayers cover Coast Guard private-party patrols

AP News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2014 12:01 AM
Taxpayers cover Coast Guard private-party patrols

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — At private parties on the waters of Long Island Sound, hosts setting off elaborate fireworks displays enjoy a little-known benefit. Security is provided, at no expense, by the U.S. Coast Guard.

For some regattas, yacht club parties and even weddings, the maritime agency assigns boats and crews to enforce "safety zones," just as it does for public fireworks displays such as the Macy's Fourth of July celebration in New York City.

Unlike police agencies that provide security support for private events on land, the Coast Guard does not seek reimbursement, leaving the bill to taxpayers, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Associated Press. The deployment of resources varies for each event, but in the case of a two-hour event for a July wedding on the sound, the Coast Guard sent two 25-foot boats that are worth $1,500 an hour — for a total of $6,000.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said in response to the AP's findings that he was asking the Coast Guard for details on the expenditures.

"There's a strong argument that private organizations, whether clubs or private parties, should bear the cost instead of taxpayers," Blumenthal said.

Coast Guard officials say their patrols are part of their congressionally mandated mission to protect the boating public. To them, it makes no difference whether the event sponsor is a town or a private party in some of the country's most exclusive real estate.

"We're not protecting the wedding. We're protecting the people from the wedding," said Charles Rowe, a Coast Guard spokesman in New York.

The patrols can be ordered at the discretion of Coast Guard officials across the United States, but no sectors are busier than those for New York and Long Island Sound, which often dispatch crews for private events. Coast Guard officials in Washington said they do not keep data nationally on how different sectors enforce safety zones.

Such Coast Guard deployments are less typical in at least one other busy sector, San Francisco. Lt. Cmdr. Amy Wirts, of the Northern California sector, said sponsors generally provide on-water security through contracts with police, which do receive reimbursement.

The commander of the New Haven sector, Capt. Edward Cubanski, said varied approaches reflect differences in threats and the complexity of waterways.

One evening in July, two orange boats carrying nine Coast Guard service members drove into Long Island Sound toward a wedding at the Glen Island Harbour Club in New Rochelle, New York. The mission was to keep boaters away from the barge launching fireworks. Charlie DeSalvo, executive producer of Fireworks by Grucci, estimated the 15-minute display cost close to $100,000.

The Coast Guard directed boaters to steer away and lingered at the scene after the show as the barge cooled.

If a fireworks "safety zone" is deemed necessary, the Coast Guard publishes a notice in a federal register and advises boaters to keep their distance over a radio broadcast. A Coast Guard official, the captain of the port zone, decides what assets might be needed.

The New Haven-based Long Island Sound sector of the Coast Guard deployed active-duty vessels, auxiliary Coast Guard boats or both for most of the safety zones involving fireworks displays last year, according to Lt. Ben Duarte, the sector's chief of waterways management.

Of 60 safety zones listed in the sector's register last year, the agency said, 21 were sponsored by a city or town. The rest were privately sponsored, including many fireworks displays put on by yacht clubs and beach clubs. Some of the privately sponsored events, including a fireworks display by the tribe that owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino, are offered for public benefit.

In the New York sector, 31 of 43 safety zones that received patrols last year were supported by active-duty Coast Guard, with the rest supported by local law enforcement or auxiliary Coast Guard, according to records obtained by the AP. About half of the events are typically privately sponsored.

Coast Guard officials said they could not provide a cost estimate for patrolling the zones because the events vary so widely. But a manual of Coast Guard reimbursement rates lists small response boats at about $1,500 per hour and medium-size boats at more than $8,000 per hour, in the event they are dispatched for what turns out to be a hoax. The Coast Guard does reimburse its volunteer auxiliary for fuel used when patrolling the zones.

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Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report from Hartford.


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