West Tisbury selectmen met on Wednesday, April 25, and reaffirmed their decision to purchase gasoline at a considerable discount from the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) despite repeated protests from the owners of Up-Island Automotive.
Walter “Pat” Jenkinson, owner of the station where the town has bought gasoline for the past 40 years, appeared before selectmen to complain that the decision was unfair and would affect his livelihood.
Selectmen cited public procurement laws and the considerable savings to taxpayers the town would realize if it utilizes the VTA pumps located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Business Park.
The town is able to purchase gas from the VTA for between 80 cents and a dollar less than what motorists pay at the pump. When factoring in the extra mileage to drive to the VTA pumps at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Business Park, the town realized a net savings of around 40 cents per gallon, town leaders said.
The VTA is able to offer deep discounts because it in turn buys gasoline through a 10-year-old state program called CommPass. The state’s Operational Services Division (OSD) administers CommPass as part of the state’s bulk purchasing program.
In addition, as a regional transit authority, the VTA is not required to pay federal and state excise taxes, savings it passes along to the towns.
Unleaded fuel prices at the VTA pumps during the week beginning March 30 were $3.53 a gallon versus a $4.60 per gallon range at Island stations. VTA’s diesel fuel price on April 6 was $3.76 per gallon compared with a $4.60 range at Island station pumps. VTA maintains a 2,500-gallon tank for unleaded gas and an 8,000-gallon diesel tank at its Airport Business Park facility.
The decision by West Tisbury selectmen on April 18 to purchase gas from the VTA angered the owners of Up-Island Automotive, who accused the town of unfair play and walking away from a partnership that spans some four decades.
“I want to see some of the gas business back,” said owner Pat Jenkinson, according to a videotape of the meeting. “You guys took it away from us; we’ve always been loyal to West Tisbury and we’ve always sold gas to the town. We can’t compete with the VTA.”
Town administrator Jen Rand explained that the town spent $33,700 on gasoline last year for police, fire, highway and animal control vehicles. She said the town could realize a savings of $5,000 or more if it purchased discounted gas from the VTA.
Ms. Rand said she gave the owners of Up-Island Automotive a chance to offer better gas prices to the town six weeks before she made the move to purchase fuel from the VTA. She said the owners were not able to meet or come close to the prices offered by the VTA.
As the town procurement officer, Ms. Rand was able to make the change without a formal vote by selectmen. The town spends more than $25,000 on fuel annually, and normally would have to put the fuel contract out to bid.
But because the town is purchasing the gasoline from a public transit authority — which puts their own gasoline contract out to bid — the town is not required to put the fuel contract out to bid, Ms. Rand said.
All three selectmen at the April 18 meeting expressed reservations about making a change that could hurt Up-Island Automotive, and agreed to gather more information on the change.
At their regular meeting on April 25, Ms. Rand said the town has the ability to join a cooperative bid with another governmental agency to purchase fuel without going out to bid.
If the town were to put the contract out to bid, the final decision would almost certainly be to purchase gas from the VTA, since they are able to offer gas at a much lower rate than local gas stations, she said.
Ms. Rand also said that, on a personal level, the decision to switch from Up-Island Automotive to the VTA was not something she took lightly. “I feel constrained by the law,” she said. “I have not enjoyed this, and I feel terrible. But I feel like I had to do this to do my job property.”
Selectmen agreed that making the switch was a difficult decision. “This points out how un-level the playing field is,” Richard Knabel said. “It’s a playing field we didn’t create but unfortunately have to play on. I don’t know how we can just ask the taxpayers to pay this difference under these circumstances.”
“I agree that it’s impossibly unfair,” said Cynthia Mitchell, in her first meeting as board chairman. “It’s out of our control.”
Both Walter “Pat” Jenkinson and his son, Patrick Jenkinson, stormed out of the meeting when it became clear selectmen would stand behind the decision. “There’s no use of us sitting here,” the elder Mr. Jenkinson shouted as he exited the meeting room. “We lost.”
Selectmen later voted 2-0 to send a letter to the Jenkinsons to thank them for their many years of service to the town. Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter abstained. He said that to send the letter “might cause more harm than good.”
Edgartown, the Vineyard public school system, Dukes County, and Tisbury utilize the VTA pumps. Chilmark selectmen recently decided to purchase a portion of its fuel from the VTA.
The discussion reflected the difficult calculus of decision-making in small communities where taxpayer interests and intertwined relationships come into play.
In addition to Up Island Automotive, Menemsha Texaco is the only other up-Island gas station. Located on a leased town lot, the latter is also the only source of fuel for boats along the Island’s North Shore.
Until recently, Chilmark policy was to purchase fuel for town vehicles from Menemsha Texaco. When discussion turned to the VTA program, selectmen said that owner Marshall Carroll, a member of the Chilmark finance committee, did not have a problem with the town signing an agreement with the VTA.
The decision to purchase fuel from the VTA was not without dissent. Selectman Jonathan Mayhew, a commercial fisherman, expressed concerns that the VTA has an unfair advantage over privately-owned gas stations. Selectmen voted 2-1 to enter into the agreement, with Mr. Mayhew dissenting.
Selectmen unanimously agreed to add a stipulation to the agreement that the town would buy no more than one third of its gas from the VTA.