Fishers Island Ferry District
Summary of 2020 Operations
2020 was a challenging and difficult year for the Fishers Island Ferry District (the District). When the impact of COVID-19 hit in March it was immediately obvious that major changes would be required to protect the viability of the District. Ticket sales early in the year dipped so hard and fast it was apparent that our two major sources of revenue: property taxes and ferry fees, would not cover operating expenses without significant changes. Within a month of the March drop in traffic, the Board of Commissioners and management reduced trips to avoid running empty decks, cut staff, added a surcharge to our fares, froze non-essential expenses, and undertook a major effort with the Town, State, and Federal government to seek financial support that was not forthcoming. We also changed our crew scheduling to keep crews and staff separate and worked with the Fishers Island School to separate commuting students and faculty from all other passengers by creating a distinct space in the cabin. New protocols were established, including enhanced terminal and ferry sanitizing, regular electrostatic fogging, and mandatory PPE on our ferries and in our terminals.
The majority of the financial shortfalls occurred in Q2 2020. By summer, we saw increased demand and more full boats, but ridership was still not what it has been in the past. We added more boats into the schedule where needed but did not return to our traditional summer schedule. Q3 and Q4 were also slow. As the season and the pandemic progressed, we began the process of rethinking the relationship between the tax revenue and our commercial revenues to enhance the survivability of the District and decided to ask for a tax increase in the 2021 tax year. For the past 10 years, we have averaged approximately 20.2% of our annual budget generated by property tax revenue. It is our hope, as the world returns to normal, we will be able to remove the fare surcharge, continue to build reserves, and be better prepared to withstand periods of extreme revenue volatility should another downside event occur.
The pandemic also impacted the Ferry District in other ways. We saw an increase in the number of planes arriving at the airport, with passengers going to island beaches. Some of this activity included irresponsibly walking on the airport runways and parking planes on the runway aprons. Additionally, large groups of islanders began to use Race Point as a sunset gathering point with increased garbage being left behind. In-house we saw Diane Hansen and Kathleen Neiman leave the Accounting team with Carol Murphy taking over as the head of Finance and Karina Curbelo joining us in Accounts Receivable. The Ferry District is responsible for maintaining its infrastructure which includes ferries and terminals, the airport, and its managed rental properties. There were capital projects that could not be delayed due to regulations or grant requirements (use it or lose it). Some of those projects included mandatory biannual ship work and the $1.2MM MV Race Point repowering, completion of the airport electrical equipment replacement, and updating the freight area on the ground floor as part of the Walsh Park apartment project. Our grant-based upcoming projects for 2021 will include the completion of the repowering of the MV Race Point, a new ferry website, paving the airport road, rebuilding certain airport seawalls, and a port security grant to upgrade our security cameras and IT cybersecurity. We also remain positive that we will see the dredging of Silver Eel Channel completed later in 2021 with support and funding from Suffolk County.
The Board now believes the District’s plans can no longer include an implicit assumption that other government organizations will provide support should a future crisis occur. We understand that the reduced operations, higher ticket prices, and increased property taxes have impacted many travelers and homeowners, but at the same time, we have been able to protect our ferry operations. We are interested in rebalancing the tax to revenue ratio to a level that is greater than our historical averages. The Board will seek a new level that seems more prudent in the context of recent experience and the surcharges that were required to sustain the service. This will be a multi-year process, designed to improve the District’s viability. We hope to see the operations return to normal levels later this spring or early summer which will allow us to rescind the fare surcharge and return to a more traditional schedule.
We welcome any comments or questions,