Tuesday, July 5, 2022
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The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard News

The Steamship Authority is having trouble hiring enough port engineers to maintain its 10-vessel fleet, while other positions also lack candidates, general manager Robert Davis said this week.

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Following a comprehensive outside review of SSA operations in 2018, the boat line doubled the number of port engineers and assistant port engineers in its organizational chart.

“We only had one port engineer and assistant port engineer for 10 vessels, [and] we could only respond to problems,” Mr. Davis said at the monthly online meeting of boat line governors Tuesday morning.

“The tide has changed. We’re being more proactive,” Mr. Davis added.

But finding and retaining the engineers has been difficult in the current tight labor environment, he said.

“No sooner do we get one than something happens and we lose one,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s a competitive market out there.”

The SSA is working with a search executive to ferret out port engineer candidates, Mr. Davis said.

Other SSA vacancies include the recently-created positions of grants administrator and chief operating officer, the latter another recommendation from the 2018 review.

The grants position has not attracted job-seekers, while only a “handful or two” have applied for the COO position, Mr. Davis said.

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“Not that the applicants we have are not qualified candidates, but I would have thought that that position would have drawn more interest than it has, at this point,” said Mr. Davis, who initially had not supported the recommendation to add a COO.

The SSA also is facing a wave of retirements among longtime non-union employees including terminal agents and managers, he said.

Mr. Davis made his remarks as governors considered a request from him and human resources director Janice Kennefick to increase the pay of the SSA’s roughly 90 non-union employees by an average of 3.3 per cent for hourly workers and 2.2 per cent for those on salary.

The only non-union employee not covered by the increase, which the board approved unanimously, is Mr. Davis, whose compensation is set following evaluations from each of the governors. That process will take place at next month’s board meeting, Ms. Kennefick said.

“Each member will provide their feedback independently to Bob,” she said.

Among other business Tuesday, governors received the results of the SSA’s 2021 audit from Valerie Colimon and Dan Bonnette of RSM.

“It was one of the smoothest audits I’ve had in my years working with the Steamship Authority,” Mr. Bonnette said.

“We didn’t find anything in the audit that we didn’t anticipate going in,” he added.

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Also Tuesday, Mr. Davis reported to the board on a June 8 hearing held in Falmouth to gather public testimony on the proposed 2023 summer schedule, which includes a 5:30 a.m. freight trip to the Island that is perennially protested by Woods Hole residents.

The hearing was required by the boat line’s enabling legislation, which stipulates a public hearing when at least 50 port town residents have signed a petition. The petition in this case had 160 signatures.

A staff report compiling testimony from the hearing and emails will be available later this summer, Mr. Davis said.

But Barnstable governor Robert Jones was in no mood to hear further objections to the early summer freight.

“The Vineyard has a 5:30 boat. The town of Barnstable has a 5:30 boat,” he said.

“When you have a 10 per cent vote, if you want to accomplish something, you accomplish it with diplomacy,” Mr. Jones continued, referring to the SSA’s governing structure that gives each of the Islands a commanding 35 per cent vote weight and the other three ports 10 per cent each.

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“You cannot continually launch cannons,” he said. “That drives people in the opposite way.”

Falmouth governor Peter Jeffrey acknowledged that the early freight boat is crucial to Island businesses, and suggested that the SSA and town seek more state enforcement for the trucks that roll through Falmouth and Woods Hole enroute to the terminal.

“Trucks . . . could be overweight or not meeting emissions standards,” Mr. Jeffrey said.

While the boat line can’t address these problems, the Massachusetts state police have the power to enforce a commercial vehicle law that could crack down on noisy trucks, he said.

Tuesday’s meeting also included the monthly business summary from treasurer-comptroller Mark Rozum, whose latest financial snapshot showed an improving picture as seasonal business has picked up.

Passenger traffic in April was up more than 9 per cent over the previous year, Mr. Rozum said, while the number of cars parked in Falmouth rose 17 per cent.

Vehicle trips on the Vineyard route fell this April by 3.9 per cent from 2021. Though vehicle excursions — which originate on the Island — were up, it was not enough to offset the drop in standard fares, according to Mr. Rozum’s report.

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