A proposed rate hike on the Chappy Ferry ran into some choppy waters Monday, as residents of the small island east of Edgartown raised questions about the barge’s financials.

More than 70 people attended Monday’s two-hour meeting of the Chappaquiddick Steering Committee, which covered the ferry’s proposed rate increases. The meeting also continued a conversation from earlier this fall about whether the town should assume ownership of the ferry as a public utility, or keep leasing it to a private owner.

After a possible private sale stalled earlier this year to further develop a town-owned option, ferry co-owner Peter Wells sent a letter to the Edgartown select board Nov. 1 requesting a 15 per cent rate hike to cover declining profits the past two years. Mr. Wells had originally held off on installing a rate increase in the event of a change in ownership, he explained in the meeting, but now plans to run the ferry with co-owner Sally Snipes for an additional year.

The Chappy Ferry is a publicly-regulated but privately-owned boat service that provides the only means of access between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. More than 300 people live on Chappaquiddick year-round, and thousands more rely on the service in the summer months. Rate increases have to be approved by the town select board.

The recent proposed increase would raise passenger fares from $4 to $5, with vehicle fare rising from $13 to $15. Bicycle fare would increase from $6 to $7, and early morning surcharges would go from $50 to $60 for the 5:00 a.m. ferry, and $20 to $25 for the 6:00 a.m. Fares overall would increase by about 15 per cent for each of the ferry’s services.

“I need this to get me through the winter,” Mr. Wells said to the committee, prompting concern from the committee about the business’s solvency.

“Is there a real possibility of bankruptcy here?” committee member John Dropick asked.

“If you give me 15 per cent, no,” Mr. Wells replied.

“And if you don’t [get it]?”

“Well, there’s a risk of bankruptcy with any business,” Mr. Wells replied.

In previous years, Mr. Wells said he’s borrowed a $100,000 line of credit from the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank to cover off-season costs, paying the loan off in the summer. Although he could borrow that same money this year, he argued that his proposed rate increase would be a more permanent solution in the face of higher year-round usage, rising diesel costs, and overall inflation.

Several committee members questioned how revenue could be down when ferry usage and general tourism hit all-time highs during the pandemic, suggesting that the town look into the ferry’s financial records to determine exactly what was needed to set the business on the right course.

“There’s longer lines every day when we never used to have lines,” Mr. Dropick said.

Mr. Wells objected to the inquiry, asserting that he knew what was best for his business.

“I’m running this boat cheaper than any other person could, and when you get a new owner you’ll know that,” Mr. Wells said. “When I ask for help it’s because I really need it.”

Because the ferry operates from a town lease, the town has the ability to examine its financial records. Town administrator James Hagerty pointed out that select board member Margaret Serpa had reviewed the books just last Thursday.

Chappaquiddick seasonal resident Jack McCauley defended Mr. Wells.

“It seems more and more like we’re scapegoating a terrific ferry operator because the town has not done a good job regulating that operator,” Mr. McCauley said.

Ultimately, committee members decided that they wanted the town to examine the ferry’s books before approving a rate increase. The committee also suggested the town approve a rate increase based on consumer price indexing (CPI) rates from the date of the last price hike. Committee member Bill Brine said the method is commonly used by other local governments, and would likely increase revenue by more than Mr. Wells’ proposal, barring major changes in traffic patterns.

The steering committee also voted to continue exploring future ownership options for the ferry, proposing that the town hire a third-party consulting firm. Committee members said the hiring of the consultant would go to a vote at the Edgartown town meeting in April.

The town select board is scheduled to discuss the rate increase at their meeting on Dec. 12.

Although tensions ran high at moments during the meeting, committee members expressed a common goal to keep the ferry running as smoothly as possible.

“If this really is a dire situation, it’s time to open the books and ensure this critical business does not go out of business,” committee member Dana Strayton said. “Let’s see where you are and see what you need and work together on this.”