Ferries to and from the most populous community on Fire Island were suspended indefinitely Tuesday after the ferry company and Village of Ocean Beach officials reached an impasse in contract renewal negotiations.
Bay Shore-based Fire Island Ferries (FIF), which serves the eight western communities on the car-free barrier island, blamed the village for demanding a 5.5% increase in annual rent to use its ferry terminal. Ocean Beach officials decried the company’s decision to suspend service if the village didn’t agree to lower its terms by 30%. As a result, the ferry company said Ocean Beach passengers will instead have to walk a third of a mile to and from neighboring Seaview and village-bound freight boat cargo will be shipped more than a mile away to Ocean Bay Park.
“Why FIF is intent on using this blunt negotiation tactic is frankly beyond our understanding,” Ocean Beach Mayor James Mallott and village trustees wrote in a letter to the residents the day before the suspension took effect. “The village will not be bullied into an agreement.”
It is not uncommon for ferry service to be suspended for several days in the winter when temperatures drop so low that the Great South Bay freezes over. But this is the first time in the 70 years of serving the village that FIF followed through on a threat to suspend service with the village over a contract dispute, Mallott said.
“The rent, discounts, and credits that the village continues to demand of the ferry company are economically untenable,” FIF said in a statement, referring to lower fares paid for homeowners. “Service to Ocean Beach will remain suspended until such a time that a more balanced agreement can be reached.”
Impacted by the impasse are several hundred year-round residents of the village, where the population booms in the summer tourist season, and local business owners preparing for the coming warmer months. While most businesses on the island are closed this time of year, there are still ferry passengers, such as home improvement contractors hired to do renovations in the off-season.
The two sides have been operating without a contract for more than a year when the prior agreement expired amid the pandemic. Despite hope that Suffolk County lawmakers would broker a deal after the initial suspension date was extended a week, neither side budged following their most recent meeting.
“Despite numerous requests of FIF to justify such a drastic reduction in economic terms, FIF has refused to provide any legitimate basis to support their demand or offer information outlining their presumed economic ‘hardship’ that might justify such a significant reduction,” the village wrote.
FIF replied: “We realize this will create hardships for numerous communities and businesses of Fire Island, and for this we apologize. It is our goal to come to a resolution with the village as soon as possible. However, the current fiscal demands of the village board show a complete disregard for both the needs of the ferry company, and those of the seven other communities that Fire Island Ferries serves.”
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