The negative impacts of the Steamship Authority on Woods Hole and Falmouth are substantial and well-documented. The Massachusetts Legislature recognized this when it passed legislation authorizing an embarkation fee to be used to mitigate those impacts on port cities and towns.
The embarkation fee is $.50/per passenger per trip and is collected by all ferry operators licensed for more than 100 passengers. In Falmouth, these operators include the Steamship Authority and Island Queen. These monies are passed on to the Office of State Treasurer and Receiver General of Massachusetts, which then redistributes the funds to the appropriate port towns, Falmouth being one of those.
According to the Office of State Treasurer and Receiver General, embarkation fund disbursements to Falmouth have amounted to $7,040,873.42 since 2005.
Where has the $7 million gone?
The handling of these funds is controlled by the 2003 embarkation fee law that specifies that “Any city or town which receives monies...[under this law] shall deposit them in a special fund, to be solely appropriated for the purpose of mitigating the impacts of ferry service on the city or town.”
Reporting in the Enterprise has touched on two questions relating to the handling of embarkation fee funds by Falmouth: Have the funds been placed in a “special” (clearly identifiable) fund, and have the fee monies been used “solely...for the purpose of mitigating the impacts”?
Each year the embarkation monies received from the state, often in amounts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, are placed in the town’s general fund and appropriated to offset the operating budgets for the police and fire departments. Apparently, the expenditures are not recorded with itemized accounting in a special fund, as instructed by the law addressing the embarkation fee. Has Falmouth been in compliance with the embarkation fee law?
The law states that the embarkation fee may “be appropriated for services including, but not limited to, providing harbor services, public safety protection, emergency services or infrastructure improvements within and around the harbor of any city or town which receives monies from this section.” I can find no specific itemization in town reports of any targeted services or infrastructure improvements “within and around the harbor” of Woods Hole or Falmouth that were paid for with embarkation fees. Where does the money go?
For 10 of the past 16 years, the Town of Falmouth has received more than $400,000 per year from embarkation fees. In many years the amounts are much higher. In 2019, Falmouth received $521,968. It appears that there is more than $1.2 million remaining today in unspent embarkation fee monies.
Is the Town of Falmouth compliant with the state law on embarkation fees? Is the Town of Falmouth providing for services or infrastructure improvements specifically “within and around” Woods Hole and Falmouth harbors? Where is the segregated “special” fund that provides accountability for such expenditures? These are a few questions that should be of interest to everyone.
William C. Hallstein