In an April 19 letter to Islesboro Town Manager Janet Anderson, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said he has "authorized the (Maine State Ferry Service) manager and our boat captains to immediately suspend ferry service to the island of Islesboro, until such time as we are assured that it is safe to resume."

Service will only be suspended if threatening and intimidating behavior toward ferry service employees continues, he said.

Selectmen were scheduled to approve a letter to DOT outlining community objections to a new ferry rate structure during a special meeting Monday, April 23, but Anderson said April 25 the letter remains a draft only.

The board did, however, talk about the letter from the commissioner. According to draft meeting minutes, Selectman Gabe Pendleton said some ferry workers were feeling "a little uncomfortable, while others did not notice any problems."

Public Safety Director Fred Porter, according to the minutes, said he spoke with Waldo County Sheriff's Office about the threats and was told "no threats met the criminal threshold," but that any new threats would be investigated.

The threats and intimidation took a number of forms, according to Bernhardt's letter.

"Examples include a post to the Islesboro Facebook page suggesting customers fire bomb the ferry service, a comment to a crew member this morning about needing to wear a bullet proof vest and a large group of individuals approaching a crew member off the boat yesterday harassing him about the new rate structure," Bernhardt wrote.

He said staff and crew members do not set policy, including the new rate structure design expected to take effect May 21. The new rates have caused outrage on Islesboro and selectmen have consulted legal counsel regarding possible legal action against DOT, according to the April 23 special meeting draft minutes.

The new fee structure represents a 118-percent increase for Islesboro residents, who currently can purchase on-island tickets for a vehicle and driver for $13.25, according to Margaret Willcox, editor of Islesboro Island News. The new rate is $30.

"This is shocking and not an option that was actually discussed in the public meetings held by the MSFS," she wrote in an April 19 email to The Republican Journal. " … This new tariff has taken folks completely by surprise."

Willcox said Islesboro is a commuter community, without mainland amenities such as a gas station, lumberyard, hardware store, veterinary clinic, bank, insurance company, garden center, laundromat, or entertainment or shopping venues that can be found on other Penobscot Bay islands.

"We all have to commute [off the island] for almost everything," she said. " … With a median income of $25,000 for the typical year-round island family, it will be impossible for some to continue to live here. People are panicked. It’s heartbreaking."

A "Recommended Decision" authored by James Billings, hearing officer and chief counsel for Maine DOT, noted response to the original rate increase was not favorable and addressed the significant increase to Islesboro fares.

“There was not a single person on any of the three separate hearing dates that spoke in favor of the proposal,” Billings wrote. “ … Based on the public input, all were in agreement that the resident/non-resident structure should be abandoned. Also, there was general agreement to greatly simplify the fare structure by having one rate for any trip that can be used on any ferry.

“There was some concern that this places a large portion of the increase on Islesboro, but it was pointed out that: Islesboro receives a subsidy from the ferry service that none of the other communities does; school children from the mainland get free passage back and forth to the charter school and school functions; they have the largest vessel; and they have the most trips offered each day.”

However, Willcox said it would have been fairer to base ticket prices on distance and use of the service.

Maine State Ferry Service provides ferry transportation to the Penobscot Bay island communities of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus. The ferry service proposed increased user fees to cover a projected shortfall in its 2020 operating budget of $11 million. State law requires that at least 50 percent of operating costs come from user fees.

The approved rates will “standardize ferry prices across the entire system,” according to a press release from Maine DOT.

“A key component of the new rate structure is an overall decrease of more than 10 percent to the truck/freight rates to help keep the costs to Maine businesses supplying goods and services to and from the islands competitive,” the press release states.