The decision on whether to charge mandatory fares for Blaine’s Plover ferry is in question, as is the funding that pays for the popular tourist attraction.
It appeared last Thursday at a meeting with city council members, Drayton Harbor Maritime, the non-profit organization that operates the ferry, and the Blaine Tourism Advisory Committee, that all parties had reached an agreement. But that agreement fell apart when it reached Blaine City Council for voting Monday.
At issue is whether the city should require DHM to charge a mandatory fee instead of asking for a suggested donation of $2 and allowing children to ride free.
DHM founding director Richard Sturgill said the organization has worked hard over the years to keep the cost of the ferry’s operation low in order to ensure the fare would be affordable to all citizens but some city council members such as Scott Dodd and Jason Overstreet said they want to see the boat used to generate more revenue and attract more tourists.
Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said because the Plover is funded by BTAC through the city’s hotel and motel tax, some council members think the boat should be used to draw more tourists.
“There’s a sense the Plover is a tourist asset and could be a draw for even more tourists, so there’s a sense that the opportunity is great to do even more with it,” he said. “Another issue at hand is that the value of the experience is worth more than $2 and that you could get $5 as a fare so you could operate longer throughout the year.”
In a letter dated December 30, 2008, Blaine City Council member and BTAC chair Jason Overstreet told DHM they would be required to raise the adult passenger fare from a suggested $2 donation to a mandatory $5 per person, and be required to use $5,000 of their requested $30,000 for marketing the Plover.
DHM representatives, however, said they were concerned about disenfranchising local riders and that the ferry is already booked to capacity on non-rainy days.
They added that the true cost of the boat’s operation is not reflected in their budget because much of the expenses are covered through cash or in-kind donations as well as volunteer labor.
Sturgill said, for example, while their original funding request was $30,000, the real estimated budget for 2009 would be approximately $47,000 if it were to reflect wage increases for cost-of-living that DHM had previously decided against in an effort to keep the fares down. Add to that, an estimated $2,700 in diesel fuel that was donated last year, moorage fees and additional labor costs.
By the end their meeting Thursday, the council had made an unofficial vote in support of a $1 increase in the suggested donation and granting the requested $30,000.
However, during Monday’s meeting, council members had changed the wording of the resolution to reflect a mandatory fare. After much discussion, council members voted 4-3 to change the wording to back to “donation” but then voted 4-3 to deny the motion.
After more discussion, Overstreet made a motion for a new amendment that would return the Plover back to DHM and offer $25,000 for 50 days of operation and the requested $3 donation. The council voted 4-3 to approve that amendment but then voted 4-3 to table the decision until their March 9 meeting. Overstreet, John Liebert and Scott Dodd voted no.
Council Harry Robinson, who voted no on Overstreet’s amendment, said he didn’t understand why the council would move to change the agreement at the last minute, adding that BTAC doesn’t “dictate” to other volunteer organizations in the community how much they should charge for tickets for events.
“We give Drayton Harbor Maritime $30,000 and anything we don’t give them, they cover it at a cost of about $16,000,” he said. “If they fulfill the intent of what we’re paying them to do – and they do – and local people enjoy it as well, that to me is number one. So it doesn’t matter to me if they charge $100 or $2. If they’re happy, we should be happy.”
Paul Greenough added that although the $3 fare would allow a concession for those who can’t afford to pay the fee, it would likely deter people who can’t afford it because they might be embarrassed to not be able to pay.
“I grew up in a small town in Indiana,” he said. “I grew up very poor and very proud and had someone said to me, this is the fare but you don’t have to pay if you’re poor, I wouldn’t have gotten on the ferry in the first place. My sense is that people in Blaine feel likewise.”
Sturgill said he was confused as to why the council and DHM representatives spent two and a half hours at a work session last Thursday evening to come to a preliminary agreement and then changed their minds at the last minute.
“I thought everything had been settled but then at Monday’s council meeting, they seemed to have reinvented the wheel and it’s all up in the air again,” he said. “The bottom line is that if we don’t get the $30,000 we probably won’t be able to operate. But I guess we’ll wait and see.”