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Beacon Archive

October 2002
PDF Version

BITA versus BIBCO

In the past month those attending the Boat Company's annual meeting and the first St. James Town Board meeting to follow witnessed a few eruptions of the tension that has been developing between BIBCo and the Beaver Island Transportation Authority. BITA had been created to receive State money and take title to assets purchased with it, primarily the Emerald Isle ferry.
On the surface, some conflict could have been expected. When the process of paying for a new ferry was first investigated nine years ago, we learned that government funding to a privately-held company would be limited, no matter how vital its expansion was to the public. So BITA was formed, and a new ferry appeared in due course.

No one realized that deferred consequences would cause tempers to flare. Yet we might have predicted that the State requiring BITA to perform services long accomplished admirably by BIBCo would produce some friction. Factoring in the traditional familial rivalry between the strong-minded members of each organization, and a shift in the State's requirements for overseeing a private company operating a publicly-funded operation, might let us anticipate a few fireworks. But no one expected someone to stand up at both meetings and verbally attack not the message but the messenger, asking St. James Supervisor Don Vyse to fire two of the Township-appointed key members of BITA and replace them with "individuals aware of the difficulties facing BIBCo and their long history of exemplary service."

With parties in both camps clamoring to express themselves, Don Vyse was in a tough spot. Deciding whether or not to change BITA horses would be his call. In the ten days between the two meetings his phone rang off the hook, and wherever he went someone collared him to lobby for their position. Negotiations were stalled for the revised operating contract requested by the state; reacting to this pressure, BITA had threatened to take back the boat and its other assets and look around for another operator if progress towards a new contract could not be made.

Copies of BITA's blunt letter were circulated at BIBCo's annual meeting, provoking an outcry. People were shocked that BITA wanted 25% of the passenger fares to cover its operating expenses, and was asking for the power to control the schedule and rates. They did not know BITA had been pushed to make these requests by the Michigan Department of Transportation.
At the St. James Board meeting, forty members of the public packed the room to see how the drama would play out. The danger, it was thought, was that the State could become so disgusted with our feuding that they would cease their support, in this and in other areas. But BIBCo couldn’t accept the proposed contract modification because it would add $2 per ticket. BITA was accused of having evolved into an excessively aggressive entity, and of having exceeded its purpose by applying for title to the bottom lands around the ferry dock.

The situation was somewhat defused during an extended period in which a dozen members of the audience made comments. It quickly became apparent that the conflict was exacerbated by a lack of accurate information, a situation helped by Barb Schwartzfisher reading a letter from the State, which made several requests of BITA: It should better define its administrative function in setting fares, purchasing equipment, and applying for grants; It should control the operation of the ferry; It should also address the use of equipment provided by MDOT in a new, long-term agreement.

By ten thirty Don Vyse realized it would be best not to act precipitously but to postpone deciding whether or not to replace part of BITA's structure until everyone could investigate the issues that had been raised and calmly consider the context, ramifications, and options. He also expressed concern over the possibility of a law suit that might ensnare the Township, and addressed the charge of a conflict of interest, saying the Township Attorney wasn’t too worried.

In the meantime, he urged the parties to the ongoing contract negotiation to try harder to resolve their differences. We understand the chips have come off the negotiators' shoulders, and they are doing just that.

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