Tampa Bay harbor pilots lost their bid Thursday for a hefty rate increase that shipping companies and port officials blasted as too rich and ill timed.
The state Pilotage Rate Review Board approved a 6 percent raise over the next two years, a far cry from the 27 percent pilots sought over three years.
Much of the discussion in an eight-hour hearing focused on what constitutes fair compensation for pilots who guide huge vessels in Tampa Bay through dense fog, howling winds and tight channels. Each will earn an estimated $262,392 salary, plus $75,000 in benefits, this year.
It's impossible to know how new rates that go into effect Jan. 1 will affect next year's pay. Pilots pool their fees and evenly split what's left after paying expenses. Revenue varies depending on the number and size of ships that call on Tampa Bay ports.
"With traffic as unpredictable as it is in today's economy, you can't predict the bottom line," said Richard Law, a certified public accountant who investigates rate cases for the board. "It's an 18-variable equation."
Shipping here slowed in the past two years as demand for lumber and cement dried up with the housing bust. Pilot salaries dropped from a peak of $366,292 in 2006 to $276,418 last year.
Some of Tampa Bay's biggest shippers — Carnival Cruise Lines, container carrier Zim America and Mosaic Crop Nutrition — blasted pilots for trying to raise rates significantly while the rest of the industry struggles.
"Pilots are not exempt from the law of economics," said Douglas Montgomery of Mosaic. "With the current economic conditions, increasing rates is not the solution."
The proposed 27 percent rate increase would have cost Carnival an additional $147,000 in pilot fees the first year for its two Tampa ships, said Domenico Tringale, vice president for port operations. Local pilot costs are already higher than those in Jacksonville, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., by double-digit percentages, said Steve Erb of Ports America, which operates the Port of Tampa's container terminal.
Pilots insist that's not a fair comparison. The route through Tampa Bay is by far the longest for vessels calling on Florida ports. The trip from west of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the Port of Tampa stretches 45 miles and takes more than seven hours.
Calculated on a per-hour basis, Tampa Bay pilots fees are a bargain at $329 compared with Key West ($1,124), Port Everglades ($566) and Miami ($473).
"I'd say $329 is about the same as a good accountant or attorney," said Allen Thompson, executive director of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association. "But from the standpoint of responsibility and liability, it cannot compare."
Board members didn't support the pilot association's 27 percent proposed rate hike. But a motion to deny any increase made by Michael Hugins of Coral Springs died for lack of a second before members settled on 6 percent.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.