Unhappy with sagging revenues and complaints about poor service from Menemsha Harbor last summer, Chilmark selectmen Tuesday discussed several possible changes that include increased staffing, hikes in mooring and slip rates, and privatizing the harbor.
The discussion centered on a 64-page report, prepared by zoning administrator Chuck Hodgkinson at the request of selectmen and entitled “Menemsha Basin Business Analysis,” based on data compiled in 2012.
The harbor is currently open for business from June 4 to September 24, with staff available to assist boaters from 7 am to 8 pm in the summer, according to the report. Harbormaster Dennis Jason routinely works well over 50 hours a week in the summer months.
Richard Steves works as the assistant harbor master in the summer, but only part-time at approximately 20 hours a week. The town also hires seasonal employees each summer to work in the harbor and assist boaters.
While discussing the report, selectmen described the problems at the harbor last year. In July and August, many boaters complained that harbor employees were not available to assist them, especially in the afternoon.
In late August, a 19-year-old seasonal employee was arrested after he received a half-pound package of marijuana delivered to the harbor master’s shack. The same employee was also accused of stealing daily dockage fees.
Something had to change
The report recommends that the town hire a year-round assistant harbor master to help lift the burden off Mr. Jason and also boost supervision and accountability in the harbor.
He or she would work 45 hours a week from June 16 through September 30, and 20 hours in the off-season. The report recommends the assistant harbor master receive $28 an hour, or approximately $45,000 a year plus benefits.
“This new position would need to qualify for year-round benefits and provide sufficient year-round income to make it appealing,” the report said.
Selectman Warren Doty said he wasn’t sure if hiring a year-round assistant harbor master with benefits was the answer, but he agreed that changes needed to be made following the problems last year.
“Everyone knows that sometimes in the summer, in the afternoons last summer, we didn’t have strong enough supervision in the harbor. That’s one of the reasons we are looking at this,” Mr. Doty said. “We either need different young fellows, or different staff. Something has to change, because we aren’t going through that afternoon thing again. We need to make sure the people are there when Dennis isn’t there, and those people will be mature and responsible and work for the town and know what their roles are.”
Police Chief Brian Cioffi cautioned against making wholesale changes in response to one bad summer.
“That afternoon thing didn’t happen every year, it happened last year. There’s nothing to say it’s going to happen again next summer,” he said. “You can’t characterize every summer as last summer, because there were good summers.”
“We’re trying to be somewhat proactive instead of just reactive all the time,” answered Jonathan Mayhew, chairman of the selectmen.
Mr. Jason said it is difficult to predict which seasonal employees will be an asset and which will be a problem.
“The one person we had trouble with was a [high school] graduate,” he said. “He was going to Cal Polly Tech. He was 19 years old, he sounded responsible… his parents lived here — an All-American kid.”
“We can do better,” responded Mr. Doty.
Mr. Jason said when he first started on the job, he tried to be at the harbor every hour of every day in the summertime.
“For the first 10 years, I tried really hard to put in 91 hours a week… but you get so sick and tired to the point you don’t want to hear the name Menemsha,” he said. “At some point you have to trust the watch and who you have on the watch.”
Chris Murphy, a retired fisherman who is active in town affairs, said he didn’t think spending more money on staffing was the answer.
“You don’t have to add $40,000 to the cost of the harbor and then go out and raise $40,000 more…. Don’t raise the cost of the harbor,” he said.
Selectman Bill Rossi said one of the goals is to hire an assistant harbor master that might eventually take the place of Mr. Jason when he retires.
“We don’t see this as being a permanent situation year in and year out into the future,” he said. “This is just to get someone to really learn the job and get trained in all aspects of being a harbor master.”
Mr. Doty said he had reservations about hiring an assistant harbor master who might require overtime pay in the summer and then have little to do in the winter. “After hearing this discussion, it seems to me that keeping an assistant harbor master for 20 hours in the winter doesn’t seem feasible,” he said.
Selectmen made no decisions and agreed any changes would need to be vetted by the harbor advisory committee and approved by voters.
The report summary recommended several “possible revenue opportunities” that include increasing dockage and mooring rates, and changes in fee structures.
It “considered but rejected possible revenue opportunities” that included a change in the rent structure for Menemsha basin lease lot holders to a percent of monthly gross revenues, a standard commercial practice. Now, the rent on the Creek Leases, mostly the shacks on the west side of the inner harbor south of the Coast Guard boathouse are $10 a year, and the bulkhead leases along Dutcher Dock range from $50 to $1,555.20.
The town currently has a first-come, first-served policy in the harbor during the summer and instructs boaters to call on the morning of their anticipated arrival starting at 7 am to try to hold a slip or mooring.
Edward “Spider” Andresen, former publisher of Saltwater Sportsman Magazine and fleet manager for singer Jimmy Buffet, said he talks to boaters all the time who are put off because the harbor doesn’t accept reservations.
“People who plan their summer vacation a lot of times only have two weeks out of 52, and they can’t come here and maybe get a slip, or get it for two days or three days or maybe not get a spot at all,” he said.
Mr. Andresen said accepting reservations would instantly boost revenues in the town harbor. “It’s a no-brainer. All you have to do is accept reservations and your occupancy rate will be up to 100 percent very quickly,” he said.
The business analysis compared the cost of docking in Menemsha to several other harbors. There are currently 19 transient slips on the West Fill Dock, an average of five bulkhead slips, six inner moorings and six outer moorings.
July slip occupancy is 70 percent, and August slip occupancy is 88 percent, according to the report.
Rental fees for slips in Menemsha are $2.75 per foot per day. Inner moorings are $30 a day, and outer moorings are $20 a day.
By comparison, Cuttyhunk has 50 slips available at a cost of $2.50 a foot up to 100 feet. Moorings are $45 a day. Oak Bluffs has 80 slips with prices ranging from $3.25 to $6 a foot, depending on the length of the boat.
The report also outlines the business model for Vineyard Haven Marina, which is privately operated. The concept of privatizing the town harbor was discussed on Tuesday, but quickly dismissed.
“As the harbor master I don’t take a position on whether we should privatize. But I, as a citizen, am against privatization,” Mr. Jason said.
Mr. Mayhew said he agreed with Mr. Jason. But there was a general agreement that the harbor rates in Menemsha were relatively low and could be increased.
“I think we can afford to raise the rates, I think we are cheap,” Mr. Jason said.
“If we went up to $3.50 [per foot] we can afford to do that and get immediate money. I don’t think we should do anything with the people on the other side [who have permanent slips] although they are getting a very good deal.”
However there was no clear consensus on the issue of taking reservations.
“At some point you may end up booking out the harbor and it may not be available for the smaller boats and families,” Mr. Jason said. “We aren’t even a one-horse harbor, maybe a half-horse, one pony. We are dealing with 14 slips.”
But Mr. Jason said a reservation policy might also have merit. It would stop the phone from “ringing off the hook” around 7 am every day in the summer and would also help people plan their vacations in advance.
Some in the audience said allowing reservations would change the dynamic of the harbor in the summer and push out families and instead attract people interested in drinking and having parties on their vessels.
Mr. Jason said a reservation policy might create problems because of no-shows or conversely people who wish to stay longer than their reservation allows.
“That’s just the reality of coming to Martha’s Vineyard in the summertime,” responded Mr. Mayhew. “[It's the same as] you can have my house, but you can’t have it another day because I have someone else coming in.”
In the end, selectmen tabled the discussion.
“We need a lot more discussion about reservations yes or no,” Mr. Doty said. “It’s a big change for the character of the harbor, and I think it needs more discussion.”