Boat Line Modifies Port Towns Funding

Cuts Former Annual Reimbursement, Citing New Passenger Surcharge; Tisbury Selectman Objects

By ALEXIS TONTI

In a reversal of Steamship Authority policy, senior managers at the boat line notified Island port towns this week they are withdrawing an annual reimbursement for police assistance and traffic control.

SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said the revenue now collected by the towns from a new ferry passenger surcharge relieves the boat line of its former obligation.

"This is not intended to be general revenue. This technically is to be used in connection with serving, supporting and accommodating the Steamship Authority," said Mr. Raskin. As such, he said the new fee covers police services in lieu of the former reimbursement.

But selectmen in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven were caught off guard by the move, which will strip them, collectively, of nearly $70,000 in expected compensation.

"The town is going to object vociferously to this apparently unilateral decision by Mr. Raskin," declared Tristan Israel, chairman of the Tisbury board of selectmen. "This was not the intent of the [ferry surcharge] legislation."

Since Jan. 1 passengers traveling on ferries between the Cape and Islands have been charged a 50-cent fee that is tacked on to the price of each one-way passenger trip. The fee, which applies to the Steamship Authority and private ferries, is being collected by ferry operators and will be paid to the town where the trip originates.

State legislation requires that the money be earmarked for public safety, harbor services and port infrastructure improvements.

It is expected to generate as much as $200,000 for Oak Bluffs and $300,000 for Tisbury this year.

The SSA policy of reimbursing the two towns for police services dates back to the era when Armand Tiberio served as general manager of the boat line. In recent years, Oak Bluffs has received $19,000 annually and Tisbury more than $30,000 annually.

The boards of selectmen in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury both received letters this week stating the boat line's intent. The notice came on the eve of the annual town meeting in Vineyard Haven, when residents traditionally authorize the town to accept this payment from the authority. And in fact on Wednesday night, voters unanimously approved an article to collect $50,000 from the boat line.

"I am extremely disappointed Mr. Raskin didn't come and talk to the selectmen before issuing this dictate from on high," Mr. Israel said.

Both Mr. Raskin and Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel said it is clear that the services previously paid for by the boat line now fall under the provisions of the legislation.

"The towns think they are winning a lottery. But [the fee] is not a windfall. They get it for a reason, and why would we give them money twice for the same thing?" said Ms. Roessel.

"I'm surprised to hear they were surprised. This was a discussion we had several times at the monthly Steamship Authority meetings as the head tax was making its way through the legislation," said Ms. Roessel.

Mr. Raskin echoed the Vineyard governor and added, "[The head tax] is really coming out of SSA resources. It is falling on our customers' shoulders, and that will have an impact on our volume.

"I understand they're disappointed; but I would be surprised if they didn't understand what we were trying to say," said Mr. Raskin.

Mr. Israel disagreed with SSA officials' interpretation of the legislation and sharply criticized management for its presumption.

"It is up to the towns to decide what is relevant, not Mr. Raskin," he said. "This was not remotely the intent of the bill, and when the Steamship Authority causes traffic jams because of poor planning or unexpected circumstances, their responsibility is to help the town shoulder that burden - that has nothing to do with port security or infrastructure improvements."

The state legislature approved the new fee as an amendment to the municipal relief package passed last year. Aimed at softening the blow from drastic state cuts to local aid, the plan allowed cities and towns to raise a variety of fees on everything from parking fines and driving infractions to fire inspections.

Voters in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury also backed the fee at the polls in November. The language of the legislation is broadly drawn, and Mr. Israel said the town is still waiting for clear guidelines from officials at the state Department of Revenue about how and when they will receive money; they have received none yet.

In Oak Bluffs, Richard Combra, chairman of the board of selectmen, confirmed that the policy change came as a surprise. He added that he understood the authority's interpretation of the legislation.

"We hadn't anticipated anything changing, but we would be more than happy to sit with SSA management to discuss whether it is reasonable and appropriate," said Mr. Combra.

"I am very disappointed the Steamship Authority seems less concerned with the community they serve than with their own special interests," stated Mr. Israel. "The town will not roll over on this."