County Board Presses Its Case

Questions on Steamship Authority Are Explored at a Meeting: Commissioners Worry on ‘Haphazard' Ways

By ALEXIS TONTI

Citing what they believe are missteps and backtracking by Steamship Authority management, Dukes County commissioners this week criticized SSA managers for their imprudence and pointedly questioned the boat line's priorities.

"There seems to be denial and avoidance, and my gut tells me that something isn't working right," said commissioner Paul Strauss.

"Management has to put more thought into [their decisions], because it seems very haphazard," said commissioner Roger Wey. "It causes disruption when decisions are made and amended within a month."

"It's time they sat down and told us the truth," declared commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. "‘We're running short, we're going to raise rates, and this is how we're going to do it.' Let's bite the bullet."

The remarks came Wednesday night at the regular meeting of the Dukes County Commission. A discussion about boat line policy with SSA marketing and public relations spokesman Paula Peters had been on the agenda, but was postponed when Ms. Peters canceled.

In recent months the county commissioners have taken aim at the Steamship Authority on a host of issues, including the new vehicle rate structure, the boat line's advertising policy and a proposal - eventually defeated - to ban passengers from staying in their cars on board the ferries.

On Wednesday the commissioners again stepped into the fray, faulting management for an approach to raising revenues that avoids addressing the reasons for either the shortfall or the boat line's escalating operational costs.

The commissioners also revisited the SSA advertising policy and voted unanimously to send a letter to Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel urging management to halt the advertising program until clear guidelines are in place.

In October the boat line signed a three-year contract with Carroll Advertising in Boston to help launch the marketing program. Management has since scaled back its plans in response to growing questions from the public sector about the authority's advertising policy.

At last week's regular monthly meeting of the boat line in Woods Hole, chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin asked the board of governors for advice about how to reinvigorate the advertising campaign. But the discussion among the governors exposed only sharp differences in opinion as to what constitutes acceptable advertising.

Ms. Roessel then postponed a discussion with commissioners on the subject, originally scheduled for this week.

On Wednesday Commissioner Wey noted the confusion expressed at the SSA meeting by management and the board of governors.

"They should stop the advertising program until they have a policy everyone understands," Mr. Wey declared.

Commissioner Strauss suggested management is misdirecting its efforts to address the authority's revenue losses.

Reading from prepared remarks, Mr. Strauss noted that the boat line must find ways to pay for labor costs and capital improvements to an aging fleet.

"These are important issues that need to be addressed openly and seriously. I believe that an experienced, able, creative management, with an equally qualified work force such as you have, should be able to deal with long-term solutions to these issues," said Mr. Strauss.

"Yet the perception is that you are avoiding these major issues and are putting effort into discussing what advertising might be acceptable."

Mr. Strauss said management "has hired a new marketing director who ... is energetically seeking new ways to expand marketing activities. This is going on whether there are policies in place to govern these activities or not."

He added: "It seems like the tail is wagging the dog."

"Is [advertising] really the issue? I think that's a very small part of the problem," said Mr. Jason. "The problem is falling revenue, and nobody wants to support raising ticket prices."

"We have to make an adjustment in excursion fares and be realistic," said commissioner Leslie Leland.

"Management has to think," said Mr. Wey, who then ran down a list of decisions that have been revised or tabled all together, including an aborted J. Crew advertising initiative on Nantucket and the surcharge for cars and trucks that are over 16 feet in length. Management is now recommending a rule change to 17 feet.

Mr. Wey also criticized SSA managers for missing the bigger picture.

"These issues are small and are not going to make much difference [in revenue]. They should be focusing on other areas, like the rate system. Some hard decisions are going to have to be made," said Mr. Wey.

Commissioners Nelson Smith and Robert Sawyer did not attend the Wednesday meeting.

The county also continues to urge the Steamship Authority to revisit a newly enacted policy that has eliminated the use of excursion fares for local governments, including towns and the county.

The new fare has hit Island governments midway through their fiscal years, when there is no extra money in the budget to pay for added travel expenses.

Under pressure from Island officials, SSA management rolled back the fare increase until July. But Mr. Davis said this week the boat line needs to do more.

"The Steamship Authority should recognize they ought to be providing a discount. These are not private trips; they are trips taxpayers are paying for so we can do the business of government. We are not there to make the authority wealthy," said Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis said that the Island towns and the county account for about 500 trips annually, a small fraction of the total vehicles that travel on the ferries.

The county manager said he plans to gather support from the other Island towns and wants to recommend a separate government rate.

"Our revenue stream is different from everybody else's. We can't go back to the well every six months, and we are limited by Proposition 2 1/2. We are different and ought to be treated as such," he said.