Boatline Governor Proposes a Return to Summer Standby
By JULIA WELLS
NEW BEDFORD - A $68 million operating budget, a $2.4 million capital budget, a $3.3 million rate increase for the people of the Vineyard and Nantucket and the prospect of a new head tax - the talk was all about money yesterday at the monthly meeting of the Steamship Authority governors.
Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel also called for bringing back summer standby lines for cars.
"I want to see us go back to seven-day-a-week standby next summer - the time is right again to try that," Ms. Roessel said. "Hopefully we will be able to pick up some spontaneous travelers and help Islanders who need to dash off and get a crown for a tooth, or whatever. I don't think we're going to see the gigundo standby lines that we saw a few years ago - and if it turns out to be a problem we'll reexamine it," she added.
Held in the historic New Bedford Public Library, the meeting was marked by moments of solemnity and pomp. At the outset Nantucket governor and board chairman Grace Grossman called for a moment of silence for the victims of the horrific Staten Island ferry accident one day earlier.
Also at the outset Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz presented J.B. Riggs Parker, the former Vineyard boat line governor, with a key to the city.
"He is someone who has truly stood there; he has helped to unlock something significant," the mayor said.
During his short and controversial tenure, Mr. Parker championed high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. He also masterminded the purchase of the passenger ferry Schamonchi, a decision which has cost the boat line hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue .
Rising costs and falling revenues were the central theme yesterday as the boat line board tackled a heavy financial agenda.
SSA treasurer Wayne Lamson formally unveiled a $68 million operating budget for the coming year. Details were made public a month ago because the board was due to discuss the budget at its October meeting, but the meeting was canceled.
The board will not vote on the budget until the November meeting on Nantucket.
Mr. Lamson has proposed a rate increase of $2.1 million on the Nantucket run and $1.15 million on the Vineyard run. The proposal calls for an across-the-board increase on rates for Nantucket, while on the Vineyard Mr. Lamson is recommending that the bulk of the increase come from a 50-cent hike in passenger fares.
Both Ms. Roessel and Mrs. Grossman made it clear yesterday that the rate increase is not a done deal.
"I expect there will be lively discussion on the Vineyard about this - the question is whether the increase comes from passenger fares, cars or freight. It's a pity that we have to raise the rates anywhere, but we have to make a choice," Ms. Roessel said.
More discussion on the proposed fare increases will take place at a meeting of the Dukes County Commission on Wednesday night at the Howes House in West Tisbury. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.
"There may be some consensus about the best way to do this, but I'm not going to bet the ranch on it," Ms. Roessel said.
Mrs. Grossman decried the need for such a large rate increase on the Nantucket run and challenged the board to take a hard look at expenses.
"Nantucketers are concerned about the raises in rates and unfortunately the future looks very dim for us," Mrs. Grossman said.
The Nantucket governor took sharp aim at the proposed advertising budget for the coming year, which exceeds $1 million. Among other things, some $300,000 has been budgeted for the development of a high-end magazine that SSA managers plan to distribute on board ferries. "Over $1 million for advertising - we can't afford that. Maybe we shouldn't be doing any advertising. And we are going to have to cut back expenses in management," Mrs. Grossman said.
Falmouth governor Robert Marshall disagreed. He said 70 per cent of the boat line budget is for labor costs, but in the same breath he defended the well-paid senior management team at the boat line.
"I don't know that we can have any significant effect by attacking our discretionary labor costs," Mr. Marshall said.
But Mrs. Grossman stood her ground.
"We hire consultants all the time - we've got to cut back. We spent a lot of money on advertising for the Schamonchi last year, and did that work?" she said.
"Advertising is like religion, you're almost afraid not to do it," Mr. Marshall said.
Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien sided with Mrs. Grossman on the SSA plan to launch a magazine. Earlier in the meeting SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said managers are weighing the merits of producing the magazine in-house versus contracting it out.
"I think it's a great idea to go out to bid," Mr. O'Brien said.
Mr. Raskin agreed.
"I've got no internal drive to be a journalist. But we do owe the traveling public an opportunity," he said.
"We owe the traveling public a ride over and back," Mr. O'Brien replied.
"That's right - that is what our mission is," Mrs. Grossman said.
Ms. Roessel said she is unconcerned about the advertising budget. "The money we spend on advertising - for me it's not even a blip on my screen," she said, adding: "The problem is not the advertising money, the problem is our labor costs, excuse me for mentioning the elephant in the living room."
In a related discussion earlier in the meeting Ms. Roessel and Mrs. Grossman criticized a new plan now on deck that will allow port communities to approve a head tax of 50 cents per passenger. Approved by the state legislature early this year, the head tax would apply to all public and private ferries with a capacity of 100 passengers or more. Money collected through the fee is supposed to be returned to the port community of debarkation. The tax must be approved by voters before it can go into effect; special elections are planned in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs next month on the proposal.
Because it applies to seven port communities, the ferry fee has the potential to be an administrative nightmare.
Cape and Islands Sen. Paul O'Leary, who sponsored the bill for the fee, was due to attend last month's meeting to explain the tax. Mr. O'Leary was unable to attend the meeting yesterday, but Paul Naves, chief financial officer for the state Department of Revenue, did attend.
Ms. Roessel asked Mr. Naves if there will be money to reimburse the boat line for the administrative costs.
"It's my understanding that there will be no additional costs to the Steamship Authority," Mr. Naves said.
"So it's an unfunded mandate," Ms. Roessel said.
"It appears that way," Mr. Naves replied.
Ms. Roessel aimed especially barbed remarks at Senator O'Leary.
"I am sorry that Senator O'Leary is not here today, because I keep hearing him say that this tax is only going to be for tourists and is not going to affect the cost of living for people on the Islands - and that just on its face is completely untrue. This is the worst example of a regressive tax," Ms. Roessel said.
Ms. Roessel said the only way for Island residents to avoid the tax is to buy blocks of passenger tickets in coupon books. And currently there are no coupon books available for children under 12, she said.
"Not every person that lives on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard has the 30-odd dollars in their pockets to buy a coupon book for every child in the family," Ms. Roessel said.
Sue Rohrbach, Senator O'Leary's district aide who attended the meeting, responded. "I know this is planned as something that would be beneficial to the port communities," she began.
"It will probably work very well for his friends on the Barnstable town council," Ms. Roessel shot back.
Later in the meeting, former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire told the board they should consider pushing for a tax on passengers who fly in and out of the Islands.
It was Mr. Leontire's last meeting as a member of the port council, and there were laudatory remarks all around and two rounds of applause for the former city solicitor.
"What's next, George?" Ms. Roessel asked.
"The oceanarium," Mr. Leontire replied, referring to the controversial oceanarium project planned for the New Bedford waterfront. A story in the Boston Herald yesterday reported that the project is expected to fold because of an announcement that state funding has been cut off.
In other business yesterday the boat line board also:
* Skipped lightly through a preliminary $2.4 million capital budget for the coming year. Reconstruction of the Oak Bluffs terminal is the main project.
* Reviewed operating schedules for the coming year.
* Discussed a plan to make the maze of reservations rules and policies more understandable for the public.