City Council President Lois Giess peered down from the third floor at City Hall as Mayor Bob Duffy put an end to the city’s support of a Fast Ferry service.
As Duffy wrapped up, I asked Giess how long the subsequent meeting of the City Council would be. The council planned to meet to remake the Rochester Ferry Company board.
"Short," she said. "We have board members to appoint… to sell a boat."
She and other City Council members had a stoic look as Duffy addressed the press in the City Hall atrium. He told the assembled that making his decision called for answering four questions:
1) Could the city afford this venture?
2) Did the ferry have a sound business and marketing plan?
3) Was there a likelihoodof success?
4) Was this the best way for the city to spend $51.5 million?
He said the answer on all counts was – no.
Here are some other questions to ask as we see the ferry as a city venture drift on:
What would have been wrong in selling the ferry as a city-subsidized service? The paradigm had always been the ferry would sustain itself. That’s how it was sold in the first year – when the private group Canadian American Transportation Systems lost millions. And that’s how then- Mayor Bill Johnson sold it when the city borrowed money to buy the vessel and run it. In 2004, Johnson said he didn’t think it necessary to sell the public that way because the earnings would cover the costs.
Later in the year, he that maybe it wasn’t wise to say that the ferry wouldn’t need city support.
But then in December, when he and Councilman Ben Douglas announced a plan to borrow more money to keep the ferry running, the self-sustaining mentality seemed back in play.
Would people in the city been more resistant to a ferry venture that, up front, called for city bucks? Maybe. But wouldn’t the community have been more accepting of losses if the city could have convinced the public to go along with it?
Under Duffy’s not-so-great "best case scenario," he had the ferry losing roughly $2.7 million. Could people in Rochester have accepted that amount? We’ll never know now.
Are we willing to pay it out now or borrow on a gamble? City Councilman Adam McFadden was one of a number of council members who were not thrilled with the sudden pull out from the project. McFadden said the boat should have been allowed to run another year by borrowing the $11.5 million requested. And then he pointed to Duffy’s call for $.9.5 million from the city’s reserve fund to pay off debts associated with the ferry and for costs in peddling the boat
To him these options were equivalent. "All this city’s got going is its reserve fund and its (good) credit rating," he said.
But in reality these options give very different vibes. Pulling from the reserve to close down shop means grabbing money in the bank. It also means being ultra-conservative, believing that there is no way the investment will take off. Borrowing that money says that the ferry could pick up steam. But it prolongs the financial agony if it continues to flounder.
And ultimately this gets to whether government really belongs in the game of risking the public coffers on ventures like this. Go ahead and apply this argument to the High Falls district… a Performing Arts Center in a Renaissance Square… even running a government bus service.
Was no one going to share the burden? Monroe County has tip-toed around that ferry project for years. Toronto clearly has no interest in it (and Duffy even said that there were agreements in place to pay the Toronto Port Authority money to take passengers).
During the Douglas-Johnson news conference last month, the plan called for tapping other governments on the shoulder for financial help with the ferry. Duffy seemed willing to try it as well. Or at least until this announcement. Clearly his administration believed they’d get nowhere with other governmental agencies.
What could we use $51.5 million for? Duffy posed that question and gave answers like — more than 500 police officers outfitted with cruisers and more the 700 houses made lead safe. But this is one question not worth posing. The city will never see $51.5 million now that it’s getting out. They will sell that boat to pay back part of the initial $40 million in borrowing. They’ll yank money out of reserves (if the City Council approves).
And finally remember awhile back when this space asked what is the Rochester Ferry Company? We said then that it’s the city.
Now we know that it’s a collection of pallbearers.