The Board of Harbor Commissioners has approved new rates for piloting large ships into Portland Harbor, including a minimum fee that is slightly lower than a fee approved just eight months ago, but more than 50 percent higher than the minimums charged last year.

During a public hearing Thursday, four commissioners voted unanimously to charge a minimum fee of 150 pilot units, about $1,077 at the new rate, for ships that need to be guided into port. Board member Patrick Arnold did not attend.

Pilot fees are determined by the size and draw of a ship being piloted, as well as fuel costs. In Portland Harbor, ships are charged $7.18 per pilot unit. Pilot rates are regulated and set by the commission.

The new rate will replace a $1,200 minimum fee the commissioners approved in May at the request of Portland Pilots Inc., the one pilots association serving Portland Harbor.

The minimum fee was $709 before the May increase, which prompted a lawsuit against the commissioners and Portland Pilots filed by Bay Ferries, the Canadian company that operates the Cat ferry between Portland and Nova Scotia. The ferry company argues the commission approved the rate change without following legal procedures. The rate passed in May would have increased the ferry’s cost by $96,000 a year and would have constituted a financial hardship, the company said in court filings.

Board Chairman Tom Dobbins said Thursday that harbors in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had charged an average minimum fee of 150 pilot units, although the rates differ between harbors. Converting the minimum charge in Portland from a dollar figure to pilot units would make future rate changes less complicated, Dobbins said.

“I think 150 pilot units is applicable to our harbor,” he said.

But Twain Braden, an attorney representing Portland Pilots, said Thursday’s rate change was made without the pilots’ input. The company needs to review the rates before deciding how to proceed, he said.

“This was out of the blue,” Braden said following the meeting. “The pilots’ position is that the rate set in May is still in effect.”

The pilots say they need a substantial rate hike to stay afloat. Falling ship traffic and fewer large ships docking in Portland have put financial strain on the company. In the past year, the pilots have had to lay off three full-time employees and leave their office on Union Wharf.

Two of the pilots’ three ships need repairs that could cost up to $600,000, which is not fully covered by a capital fund, Braden said in a letter to the commission. They are also owed $86,000 by Bay Ferries, which is withholding payment while its lawsuit proceeds.

It costs approximately $1,327 a day to run the pilot service, and according to the pilots, they would still lose money even with the May increase.

The pilots “cannot make further cuts without impacting service in one way or another,” Braden wrote in an October letter to the board.

Harold Pachios, a partner with Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios, said he is infuriated with the entire proceeding.

Commissioners haven’t forced the pilots to disclose their revenues to justify their fee requests, Pachios said in an email Thursday. Without that information, the commission can’t determine a reasonable rate, he said.

“In 47 years practicing administrative law, I have never seen an agency make such an effort to ensure there will not be any transparency,” Pachios wrote.

After the hearing, Pachios said he intends to ask for a judicial review of the process.

“It is very hard to prove governmental oversight when you refuse to ask the company you are regulating a single question,” he said.

Commissioner Patrick Arnold, whose company, Soli DG, manages the International Marine Terminal in Portland and promotes the state through CruiseMaine, did not attend Thursday’s hearing, but in an email to Dobbins said raising the minimum fee was appropriate given the decline in harbor traffic.

“I as much as anyone would be negatively affected by the changes we are proposing,” Arnold said, citing the impact on container shipping and cruise traffic.

“Assertions that the commission is doing anything but our job to protect the safety and sustainability of the harbor are lazy at best and slanderous at worst,” he said.

The new rate structure is set to go into effect 45 days after Portland and South Portland city councils receive notification of the change, likely sometime after Jan. 1.

Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]