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Something is fishy at the Small Boat Harbor, and it has nothing to do with the ice fishing now under way, slip renters say.

Last summer, they complain, holes poked through the rusty docks, including one dock designed for people in wheelchairs. Restrooms were usually filthy, the restaurant seldom spotless. Security was merely rumored. Many boaters, fed up, took their craft elsewhere.

Yet slip users, who claim they already pay the area's highest rental fees, face a 10 percent rate increase next season. And they're mad as hell at their landlord, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

In approving the new rate schedule last week -- the average daily rental fee for a 30-foot slip will rise to $8.64 from $7.76 -- NFTA commissioners ordered the authority staff to develop a plan that addresses the renters' concerns.

But the users, who claim they've heard it all before, are skeptical.

"We've had the same needs since 1993, the last time rates went up. We've been trying to get (the NFTA) to address them ever since," said Kathleen Cardamone, president of the Small Boat Harbor Slip Renters Association.

Over that stretch, the 1,100-slip Fuhrmann Boulevard marina has practically gone to seed, according to the group, which represents about 460 users.

Security, or rather the lack of it, tops a long list of grievances: A single NFTA employee patrolled the property in an unmarked car last summer -- and only on weekdays, during daylight hours, Cardamone said.

"Our problems are at night and on weekends," she said.

Most of those problems stem from unrestricted access to the facility.

For example, during an association party at the Small Boat Harbor one night, a renter was threatened by her former spouse, who had crashed the event armed with a knife, Cardamone recalled. Without NFTA security presence, Buffalo police had to be called in to defuse the confrontation.

The public has the run of the docks, where many expensive boats are anchored. Cardome said she was in her powerboat's bathroom one day when she looked up to see a stranger peering through the window.

"You don't feel safe. That wasn't always the case," Jerome Barber, vice president of the renters association, told NFTA commissioners meeting Tuesday. In addition, nonrenters frequently tool around the harbor recklessly in boats and on personal watercraft, said Barber, who led a delegation protesting the rate increase.

Slip users want the NFTA to assign a police boat to keep out the invaders, he said.

Restrooms in the harbor building, which houses an NFTA office and restaurant, are often in "scandalous" shape, and the restaurant is often dirty, he said.

Seaweed severed by propellers is allowed to drift into the harbor, where it clogs slips and channels and sticks to the keels and rudders of sailboats, hampering steering.

"It's a safety issue," Barber said.

The Small Boat Harbor grounds are poorly maintained.

"There is usually garbage. The grass isn't watered. Plants died and haven't been replaced," Cardamone said.

All of this has added up to a loss of patronage, the renters say. By their tally, the Small Boat Harbor, which once had a long waiting list, ended the 1999 season with more than two dozen vacant slips. They figure the NFTA lost $27,000 in rental revenue.

The NFTA earns, or should earn, more than enough from Small Boat Harbor rentals and concessions to upgrade the facility, Cardamone believes.

"At $1,000 to $1,200 a year per slip, how can you be losing money?" she said.

The facility "doesn't make a lot of money," replied NFTA Executive Director Lawrence M. Meckler. Any surpluses, he said, help prop up the authority's Metro Rail and Metro Bus operations.

Meanwhile, Meckler said, Small Boat Harbor operating costs have risen since the last rental increase in 1992, necessitating the 10 percent hike.

Rental rates seem higher than at other marinas primarily because the Small Boat Harbor season is shorter, he said. Renters aren't charged for the time it takes to put the floating docks into place in the spring and remove them in the fall, he noted.

Meckler said patronage has declined because boating is in a down cycle across the area.

Yet he conceded the renters "made a number of good points with respect to customer service and infrastructure," and pledged to rectify them.

"We don't want to lose people for those reasons," he said. "We'll meet with the renters to lay out some of our plans. We'll have more communication. We're going to try to be a better Small Boat Harbor this summer."

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