SSA toll for school funding was moot in March

Ferry service official says it can’t be done because money wouldn’t be to improve service.

The Steamship Authority is not on board with an idea to have passengers pay a toll to benefit education funding. —Stacey Rupolo

Island resident Chuck Hodgkinson has been making the rounds at recent selectmen’s meetings, along with Assistant School Superintendent Richie Smith, proposing a “Save our Schools” surcharge on Steamship Authority (SSA) automobile and passenger tickets on trips between the Vineyard and Woods Hole as part of a 25-year plan to help fund post-employment benefits (OPEB) for public retirees and badly needed renovations to MVRHS.

Mr. Hodgkinson estimates unfunded OPEB obligations at $81 million, and the cost to bring MVRHS up to 21st century standards a minimum of $55 million. He says a large part of the $136 million could be raised by SSA ticket surcharges, which would distribute costs over Island residents and visitors without raising town taxes. For every vehicle one-way ticket, there would be an additional $5 surcharge, which would decrease by $1 every three to four years. For passengers, the surcharge would be an additional $1.50, which would eventually decrease to $1.25. By year 25, the surcharges would stop.

However, as well-intentioned as the effort may be, Marc Hanover, SSA member representing Martha’s Vineyard, told The Times this week that the idea was rejected by SSA in March, and that he informed Mr. Hodgkinson of the decision this spring by sharing the written decision by SSA general counsel Steven Sayers.

“I don’t think they’re being completely forthcoming when they failed to mention to these selectmen that they’ve already run it by the Steamship Authority and they’ve said it’s a tax, and they’re not authorized to collect taxes for anybody.” Mr. Hanover said. “Why should the traveling public bail out the school system? The only reason they’ve gone to the [SSA] is because of the sheer numbers they handle. They said as much to me.”

In his March 31 seven-page opinion, Mr. Sayers states the “Save our Schools” surcharge is not “necessary or incidental to the performance of [the SSA’s] duties and execution of its powers” as required by the 1960 SSA Enabling Act, and that it would not be considered to be a “legitimate fee” per state law, nor would it be considered constitutional. “And even if such a surcharge is imposed by the Legislature and held to pass constitutional muster as an excise tax, the proponents of the proposal are clearly incorrect in asserting that the proposal ‘will not raise taxes,’” he wrote.

“People are very sensitive to the rates, and we try our best to keep them down,” Mr. Hanover said. “Our mandate is to provide safe, reliable transportation at a reasonable cost to the Island. This isn’t in our mandate. Why it’s still being pursued I don’t understand. To tell people they’ve already run it by us is not acceptable.”

Mr. Hodgkinson did not return calls or emails about the proposed SSA tax from The Times.

At the August 22 Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting, he said the program “would take care of senior citizens on fixed incomes and not raise taxes, as well as provide a 21st century education to Island students.”

He acknowledged that the toll would have to pass muster at the State House, which was unlikely. “The odds are low we’ll get to that point, but I’m willing to give it a shot,” he said.