South Ferry seeks first rate hike since 2008

If South Ferry officials are successful in their application to the Suffolk County Legislature, commuters could be paying higher rates as of July 1 and non-Island drivers would also once again have to pay for any passengers they bring along.

In the company’s first proposed rate hike request since 2008, South Ferry owner and President Cliff Clark told the Town Board at its work session Tuesday that he’s requesting a 15.4-percent increase for Shelter Island residents to purchase a 10 roundtrip book of tickets. The cost would rise from $52 to $60. Islanders would pay $57 rather than $50 for a book of 10 one-way tickets, a 15.29-percent increase.

It’s up to the Suffolk County Legislature to decide whether or not to grant the rate request, which Mr. Clark said has been made unavoidable by rising fuel costs and declining revenues due to a falloff in traffic. The same reasons were given when North Ferry asked for a rate increase last spring. It was granted in September.

After a decade during which South Ferry levied no charges for passengers, non-residents would once again be charged $1 for each under the rate proposal. Non-resident commuters also would see their rates increase by 14.28 percent for a 10 roundtrip ticket book to $98, up from $85. For a book of 10 one-way tickets, non-residents would pay $80, up from $70.

The company eliminated charges for passengers in vehicles in 2002, maintaining it simplified fare collections while giving the public “a significant break,” according to information Mr. Clark provided Tuesday.

But to generate the revenue the company needs, he’s asking the legislature to reinstate a $1 one-way charge per passenger for non-resident ratepayers, rather than request a larger rate hike for all categories of ferry users.

“We feel the passenger fare method is better as it will pass a significant portion of the revenue to seasonal, transient users,” Mr. Clark said in his written proposal.

“This is the least enjoyable part of our job,” Mr. Clark told the Town Board Tuesday. “I hate doing it.” But he said there has been “a lot of work we’ve had to put off” because of higher fuel costs and the raise would allow the company to begin to address those needs.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, commenting on the South Ferry application at Tuesday’s Town Board work session, said he was “delighted” the company had given the town a copy of its “audited financials” for 2010 and 2011. He said it was a first for the town. Although the North Ferry Co. and South Ferry have to open their books to the legislature’s Budget Review Office when they seek rate increases, he noted, they do not have to release their numbers to the town. The fact that South Ferry had done so meant the company was “treating us with professionalism and respect so we will reciprocate,” the supervisor said.

Mr. Dougherty clashed with North Ferry Company’s Manager Bridg Hunt last summer when he rebuffed Mr. Dougherty’s request to see the company’s books.

Mr. Clark had hoped to have the rate proposal before the county legislature earlier but a miscommunication between South Ferry and its accounting firm resulted in a delay in getting two years of audited financial reports prepared for the county’s Budget Review Office, Mr. Clark said. Now he’s hoping the legislature can act to approve the rate increase by its June 19 meeting so the new rates can take effect before the July 4 holiday.

Before the legislature holds a hearing on the proposal and votes on it, the Budget Review Office will issue a recommendation within 45 days. Meanwhile, the Shelter Island Ferry Advisory Committee will hold a public informational meeting and issue its own recommendations.

Getting new rates in place at the start of the summer is “critical,” Mr. Clark said, explaining that if the Legislature failed to act on the application at its June 19 meeting, a 30-day legislative recess would result in a loss of additional revenues for the summer.

RISING COSTS, LESS TRAFFIC

“With skyrocketing fuel prices combined with declining traffic, South Ferry realized a net loss from operations of $27,538 in 2010 and $167,559 in 2011,” Mr. Clark said in his submissions to the country and town.

“We’re no different than any other business,” he told the Reporter after Tuesday’s meeting, while noting that the company uses 85,000 to 95,000 gallons of fuel a year.

South Ferry never fully recovered from escalating fuel costs between 2003 and 2007 when prices increased by 293 percent, he said. While there was a decline in 2008, fuel costs have continued to increase since 2009 while ferry traffic has shown a steady decline, he said.

The company carried 62,000 fewer cars and 5,389 fewer trucks in 2011 than it did in 2007, he said.

Between 2004 and 2011, the company paid “$687,055 over a typical budget” for fuel “without imposing fuel surcharges, which are typical in the transportation/delivery industry,” Mr. Clark said.

“We’ve really been operating on a shoestring,” he said. “It’s essential to be able to keep operating and maintaining the boats.”

At the same time, he said he was sensitive to the fact that ferry riders are experiencing difficult economic times.

“We’re part of the community; these people are our friends, our neighbors, our relatives,” Mr. Clark said.

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