Sparking a fresh war of words between the Steamship Authority and the town of Tisbury, the Vineyard boat line governor said yesterday he may call for the state attorney general to look into how the town plans to use its ferry fee revenues.
Marc Hanover, chairman of the boat line board and a resident of Oak Bluffs, said Tisbury's plan for using funds from the passenger fee is poorly conceived and outside the confines of the legislation that created the fee. He said at least part of the money should go toward police detail near the Vineyard Haven terminal.
Mr. Hanover said he has met several times with Tisbury officials to resolve the issue, but the SSA and the town remain at loggerheads. Mr. Hanover said if the matter remains unresolved it may deserve the attention of the attorney general.
In play is almost $270,000 generated last year by a 50-cent embarkation fee charged to ferry passengers leaving the port of Vineyard Haven. In the fall of 2003, the town joined other ports in southeastern Massachusetts in enacting the fee, which stemmed from a proposal by state Sen. Robert O'Leary and state Rep. Eric T. Turkington to compensate the Cape and Islands for lost state revenue.
The Tisbury selectmen have proposed using about $217,000 of the money to help buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the police department, and to help defray the cost of a $300,000 fire pumper truck. Selectman Ray LaPorte said a specific proposal has yet to be worked out. Town voters will make the final decision at the annual town meeting in April.
Mr. Hanover contends the money is not Tisbury's to do with as it pleases, but effectively belongs to all the Vineyard towns, whose residents must pay the fee to travel off-Island on Steamship Authority ferries. "These fees are paid by everybody on this Island," he said.
Mr. LaPorte, however, said it is not Mr. Hanover's call.
"It's not his to say," Mr. LaPorte said yesterday. "He didn't write the legislation. He doesn't sit on the selectmen's side of the table."
Mr. LaPorte said the town bases its position on the legislation and on a letter written last year by Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Turkington about the intent of the legislation.
Told that Mr. Hanover had raised the possibility of involving the state attorney general, Mr. LaPorte replied: "That's unfortunate. If he wants to raise it to a higher level, he may bring into question the funding for all the other towns."
SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said the matter also may come under review by the state Department of Revenue, which monitors the fee.
Last year, according to the boat line, the fee generated $916,555 in revenue. Falmouth received the most, $356,930, followed by Tisbury, and then Barnstable with $105,342, Nantucket with $103,333 and Oak Bluffs with $83,248.
According to the legislation: "Any city or town which receives monies from this section shall deposit them in a special fund, to be solely appropriated for the purpose of mitigating the impacts of ferry service on the city or town. Monies deposited may be appropriated for services including, but not limited to, providing harbor services, public safety protection, emergency services or infrastructure improvements within and around the harbor of any city or town which receives monies from this section."
In contrast to the other four port communities, the fee has generated bad blood between Tisbury and the SSA. The town has been at odds with the boat line for years over how to share the cost of managing traffic congestion around the busy terminal off Water street, and the latest scrap over the ferry fee has reopened old wounds.
Last year, the SSA took the occasion of Tisbury's enactment of the fee to withdraw $46,000 that it had planned to provide to help pay for police traffic details for the streets near the Vineyard Haven terminal. Tisbury retaliated by eliminating the details, leading to worse summer traffic congestion than usual in downtown Vineyard Haven.
"They still want us to pay for the details down there," Mr. Hanover said. Even though SSA passengers are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for Tisbury, he said, "They act like the Steamship Authority is robbing them."
But Mr. LaPorte questioned whether using the ferry fee money to fund manpower to cope with the traffic inflicted on Vineyard Haven by SSA traffic is appropriate. He said the money should be used toward capital infrastructure.
"We have a lot of costs related to the Steamship Authority," he said, citing for example the park and ride lot off State Road, which he said already has cost the town more than $1 million.
Yet he said the SSA - which was created by an act of the state legislature more than 40 years ago to provide reliable ferry transportation for Vineyard and Nantucket residents - has been financially protected.
Mr. Hanover said the other port on the Vineyard, Oak Bluffs, had handled the disbursement of the ferry fee money well.
He said town selectmen had met with department heads to come up with appropriate uses of the money, which came before the voters at a special town meeting in January. Those uses included a new boat for the harbor master and bulkhead repairs, but not an ambulance, which Mr. Hanover said the selectmen viewed as too far afield. At the January meeting, voters approved spending $81,000 in ferry fee revenue as recommended by the selectmen.
In Tisbury, Mr. LaPorte said, the selectmen are working to keep the use of the funds inside the parameters of the legislation spearheaded by Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Turkington, and away from other uses, such as a rainy-day fund.
In a May 18 letter to then-SSA chairman Robert O'Brien, the two legislators sided with Tisbury in its tussle with the boat line.
"We are writing to express our dismay at the recent announcement from [then-chief executive officer] Fred Raskin that the Steamship Authority will no longer reimburse Tisbury for police services provided on boat line terminal property . . . . The embarkation fee revenue collected by the Steamship Authority is meant to be distributed to port towns to make up for the shortfall in state funding, and was never intended as a way for the Steamship Authority to cut costs," they wrote.
Mr. Hanover said he bases his argument on the legislation as it was ratified, not its intent, and on a thorough analysis of the issue provided to the SSA by a Boston attorney, Donald K. Stern.
"Show me something that shows that I am wrong," Mr. Hanover said.