CRANBERRY ISLES — Voters at a special town meeting Saturday rejected the idea of a town-owned ferry service.
Instead, they voted 33-3 to have the town contract with a private, for-profit operator to provide year-round ferry service between the Cranberry Isles and both Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor.
Beal & Bunker has operated a mail boat ferry service to the Cranberries since 1952. Company owner David Bunker, who has said he wants to sell the business and retire, has made a commitment to continue operating the ferry through October.
The town’s Transportation Task Force proposed three options for ownership and operation of a ferry service to succeed Beal & Bunker. One option was town ownership, with the town buying boats and hiring a manager, who would hire and oversee the captain and crew. The estimated start-up cost to the town would have been up to $750,000.
Another option was to have the town create a nonprofit corporation to own and operate a ferry service, similar to the Isle au Haut and Chebeague Island model.
Under the option that voters endorsed, the town is to prepare a request for proposals for a single, for-profit operator and to award a contract. Among those speaking in favor of that option at the town meeting was Keith Smallwood.
“The town doesn’t have to spend a lot of money for boats, and we don’t have to manage people who are managing the service,” he said. “I think it’s the best way to go financially and … for what will meet our needs.”
Phil Whitney agreed that contracting with a private ferry operator would be the most efficient option and avoid having “another layer of bureaucracy in the town.”
The most passionate advocate for a town-owned service was Rob Liebow, former superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, who owns a home on Great Cranberry Island. He has frequently captained the Beal & Bunker mail boats over the years. He said that having the town own the ferry is the best way to ensure its safe operation.
“There are far too many risks that could result from the cutting of corners that will most certainly occur by many potential private operators trying to make a profit in a business that operates so close to the economic break-even point inherent to a year-round operation to the islands,” Liebow said.
He acknowledged that buying boats and hiring a manager and crew would be expensive for the town.
“But it’s the only way you’re going to know what kind of boat you have and who’s running that boat,” he said. “Because [otherwise], someday a tragedy is going to happen. I’m almost sure of it. And we’re getting closer and closer and closer to that point.”
Board of Selectman Chairman Richard Beal said he also favored a town-owned ferry service.
“I don’t trust anyone other than the town, at this point,” he said.
Chris White said there has been ample time for potential private ferry operators to express serious interest.
“It hasn’t happened, and I doubt there’s going to be anybody stepping forward now.”
But Deputy Town Clerk Nan Hadlock said, “I do believe there are people waiting to see what happens today before they step forward.”
And Ron Axelrod, former chairman of the Transportation Task Force, said he had been contacted by three “reliable operators” who expressed interest in providing the ferry service.
Liebow said Bunker had asked him to come to the town meeting and speak on his behalf because sometimes “he has a hard time expressing his thoughts.”
He said Bunker definitely plans to stop the ferry service in October.
“He knows he can’t run another winter without going under completely,” Liebow said.
“He borrows money every winter. He can’t keep the boats up. He can’t maintain them. He knows that. He needs to get rid of them.”
Liebow said Bunker had offered to lease the ferry service to the town for $175 a day from October to May.
“His crews would run it, he would pay for any maintenance, and [the town] would take all other costs,” Liebow said.
He said Bunker would then be willing to operate the ferry service again next summer, “which is the only time you can make money.”
But the majority of voters decided the town should not be in the business of owning or operating a ferry service.
Voters did authorize the expenditure of up to $50,000 in town funds to cover costs involved in finding and working with a private operator to establish a new ferry service.
One issue that must be resolved before any new service can begin is the acquisition of landing rights in Northeast Harbor. Beal & Bunker currently holds those rights.
To help offset costs, any new ferry operator also would need to have a mail delivery contract with the U.S. Postal Service. Bunker was set to let his contract expire in June. But Beal, the selectmen chairman, said Bunker has extended his mail contract “into October.”
The special town meeting was held at Neighborhood House on Islesford.