CLAY TWP. – The Harsens Island ferry owner and the state agency that regulates the ferry are butting heads again.
The Michigan Public Service Commission has ordered Champion’s Auto Ferry to explain why it failed to provide documentation the commission says the company is required to submit.
In a November filing, the MPSC staff called Champion’s “serially noncompliant.”
The MPSC staff asked the commission to fine Champion’s for failing to provide financial information, reverse its March 2013 approval of a $1 rate increase and order Champion’s to refund ticket money collected after the $1 rate increase.
Dave Bryson, president of Champion’s Auto Ferry, maintains the commission does not have the right to the information it’s requesting.
“They’re not entitled to receive the information they’re asking for because it has nothing to do with the ferry operation,” Bryson said.
“If they can convince me that the information they want would have some sort of impact on the ferry’s books, then I’ll give it to them.”
Bryson added he has entities that are subsidiaries of the ferry, but not under the commission’s jurisdiction.
Deckhand Dan Rymal collects fares from vehicles Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015 on Champion’s Auto Ferry on the North Channel between Clay Township and Harsens Island. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)
Champion’s — the main source of transportation to and from the island — has had its run-ins with the commission before.
In July 2012, Bryson threatened to retire and claimed he would go out of business when the commission refused a rate increase.
Under the Carriers by Water Act, Champion’s is a regulated entity under the jurisdiction of the commission.
With Bryson’s pending retirement, the Detroit International Bridge Company announced it would resurrect plans from 2007 for a bridge to the island. The plans never materialized.
In spring 2013, the commission forestalled Bryson’s retirement by approving the rate increase.
According to the staff report, Champion’s agreed to provide a CPA-prepared financial statement and a 5- and 10-year business plan in exchange for its rate increase.
Champion’s also agreed to hire a new manager for the ferry, and show how the rate increases were used, according to the report.
The MPSC staff maintains Champion’s has done none of these.
“Once again, it appears that Champion fails to fully grasp its obligations under the act or the authority of the commission to regulate the ferry service,” the commission’s December order stated.
“Therefore, the commission finds that Champion should be provided an opportunity to be heard on the motion to show cause why it should not be penalized.”
The penalty for each violation can be fined by no more than $100 and/or imprisonment in the county jail for no more than three months, according to the commission order.
Bryson said he’s upset by the way the commission handled the situation.
“They could have just called me up and said, ‘Hey, let’s have a meeting about this,'” Bryson said. “But they just went ahead and filed a lawsuit without asking, which seems like kind of a strong-armed way to go about doing business.”
“You would think that the state of Michigan would go out of its way to make sure we’re happy, given the alternative that we would go out of business and they would run it. But they don’t seem to take that opinion.”
According to MPSC staff reports, Bryson was asked at least twice by the commission staff to provide the financial information. He refused.
Bryson said he plans to retire soon, but has been unable to find or train a replacement because of the conflict between the ferry and state.
Arthur Champion, Bryson’s grandfather, started the ferry in the 1930s. Bryson said he started working as a manager at the ferry in 1989 and bought out his brothers shortly after.
A plan to establish a public-private partnership between the ferry and Blue Water Area Transit to secure the ferry’s future is “dormant,” Bryson said.
“Nobody’s touching it because they’ve made so many demands and have so many restrictions on it,” Bryson said. “It’s nothing anybody in private business would sign.”
A pre-hearing on the issue was held in December. Testimony from the staff and Champion’s will be taken in February, and proceedings likely will last through the spring.
An administrative law judge is expected to make a recommendation in July, which will be referred to the commission.
The commission will make a decision about any penalties Bryson may face.
Contact Beth LeBlanc at (810) 989-6259 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @THBethLeBlanc.