State rep wants taxpayers to pay Tisbury traffic bill
If an amendment attached to a state supplementary budget bill filed by state Rep. Eric Turkington (D) survives the legislative process, Massachusetts taxpayers and not the town of Tisbury will foot the bill for police to direct traffic at the Five Corners intersection next summer.
Tisbury selectmen, who said they did not request the amendment and were surprised to learn about it, think that it would be just fine if state taxpayers were to pay that bill.
Stepping into a fray between the Steamship Authority (SSA) and Tisbury that he helped to create, Representative Turkington last week added the amendment to a multi-million dollar supplemental budget bill festooned with lawmaker requests for money. The amendment reads "not less than $40,000 shall be expended for police protection at Five Corners intersection during the summer of 2006 by the town of Tisbury."
Mr. Turkington said he decided to act because the SSA and Tisbury have been going back and forth over the issue of police details and remain entrenched in their positions.
"I thought, well, if a $40,000 state appropriation can get this behind us and move things along it would be worth it," said Mr. Turkington.
Many times this summer, streets around the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority terminal were clogged with vehicles exiting and entering the ferry staging area. As a result, traffic attempting to navigate the Five Corners intersection was often significantly backed up along Beach and State roads.
The SSA has insisted that Tisbury is responsible for providing police traffic coverage in the terminal area and the cost of that coverage is exactly what the legislature-created 50 cent embarkation fee was meant to cover. The fee is worth nearly $270,000 annually to Tisbury. SSA officials have pointed to Oak Bluffs and Nantucket, which provide police to help move traffic. Only Tisbury, the SSA says, has not dropped its annual request for funds for policing since the embarkation fee was put in place.
Tisbury selectmen, who want the SSA to continue to provide money for traffic control as in the past, insist that the SSA has no right to dictate how the town should use embarkation fee money.
Tisbury used the $269,395 it received in 2004 to pay for the cost of a new fire department pumper truck and a police car. In the first two quarters of 2005 the town received $96,326 in embarkation fee money, said town treasurer Tim McLean, and is on track to receive an amount roughly equivalent to last year.
The ferry fee legislation was sponsored by Representative Turkington and Sen. Robert O'Leary of Barnstable. It provided for a 50-cent fee on the price of each one-way ferry trip to be paid to the town where the trip originates.
The law states that the money must be used solely for services to mitigate the impacts of ferry service on the port city or town including, but not limited to, "providing harbor services, public safety protection, emergency services or infrastructure improvements within and around the harbor of any city or town which receives monies from this section."
Since the SSA stopped paying Tisbury approximately $40,000 for police details, summer traffic officers have been assigned to the terminal area and instructed to concentrate on assisting pedestrians, not directing traffic.
The issue grew heated this summer when, in a blistering letter to the editor, Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, SSA Vineyard member and board chairman, placed blame for the problem of summer gridlock squarely on the Tisbury selectmen's "stubborn and ill-conceived refusal to provide any police services for traffic management around Water Street."
Money for grabs
The supplemental budget process allows lawmakers to take up items and appropriations not included in the fiscal year operating budget. The supplemental budget approved last week in the House and now before the Senate included money for roadwork and state colleges.
The budget entered the House with a price tag of $300 million. It exited the House with 120 amendments added by lawmakers that pushed the cost to $317.2 million during a two-day process that allowed for little debate or public review.
In a telephone conversation this week from his Boston office, Mr. Turkington said that not all supplemental budget bills provide an opportunity to add amendments.
"Once in a while one comes along where individual representative's amendments are accepted, and this was one of those," he said.
Elaborating on what made this bill different, he said, "My sense is there is some funding available, and since individual district projects are not accepted in so many instances, they ought to be accepted once in a while, and this was the once in awhile."
More than 400 amendments totaling $2 billion were filed with the House Ways and Means committee. Of those, approximately 120 were adopted by the House, sometimes with reduced amounts and included with the budget bill, including money for Tisbury. A number of amendments were then withdrawn for various reasons before the bill went on to the Senate.
Mr. Turkington said he decided to seek the money after watching the SSA and town go back and forth over the issue. Asked why he had not also sought to provide money for traffic control in Nantucket and Oak Bluffs, which now pay to provide police details, he said there has not been a similar issue in either port.
When he was asked why state taxpayers should pay for police traffic coverage at Five Corners, Mr. Turkington said that an examination of the budget would show that "state taxpayers are paying for a lot of different things in a lot of different places." He added, "That is the kind of issue that has been rolling around for months, and I did not think it was particularly constructive to keep having that argument if I could fix it with this."
Mr. Turkington said the use of embarkation money was up to the town. He said the statute defines public safety purposes broadly, and he would not second-guess the decision to use the money for a fire truck. Asked what would happen if Nantucket or another port decides not to use money for police traffic control at the SSA terminal next year, Mr. Turkington said he would worry about that next year.
The supplemental budget bill is now in the Senate ways and means committee. Senators, including Rob O'Leary, are also looking to get a piece of the budget pie.
On to the Senate
Eventually a version of the bill replete with Senator's amendments will go before the full Senate for approval.
It is inevitable that the House and Senate versions will differ. A conference committee will need to reconcile the differences and amendments. The bill and any amendments that survive that process will go to Governor Mitt Romney for approval, at which time he is free to exercise his line item veto powers.
Speaking from his office Tuesday, Mr. O'Leary said the number of amendments that came out of the House was surprising and would create a similar effort on the Senate side. "In some respects this has become a bit of a Christmas tree," he said.
Mr. O'Leary said most amendments are well intentioned and often serve important community needs. In his own case, he said he would be seeking $250,000 to provide mental health services for the Islands.
Asked if he would support Mr. Turkington's request for money for police in Tisbury, Mr. O'Leary paused and said, "My first priority here is the emergency mental health funds, and I will support my counterpart's efforts on the House side as well."
For their part, Tisbury selectmen said they would take whatever they can get. Called Tuesday afternoon, Ray LaPorte, chairman of the Tisbury selectman, said he did not know about the amendment but considered the traffic situation a local issue.
Tristan Israel said that when he learned about the amendment from a small news item in the Vineyard Gazette, his only concern was that it said Five Corners and the town needs help on Water Street. He said Mr. Turkington assured him that the language was broad enough to allow for traffic coverage on Water Street.
Asked why state taxpayers should fund police traffic officers when the town already receives embarkation fee money, Mr. Israel answered a question with a question:
"Why does The Times look to punch holes in anything that helps Tisbury, would be my answer," he said.
At the Tuesday evening selectmen's meeting, selectman Tom Pachico said, "If they want to give us $40,000, would you think we would turn it down?"