Representatives of cruise lines, two major ports and various maritime businesses blasted a rate increase requested by Tampa Bay harbor pilots Wednesday at the first public hearing on the issue.
Speakers warned the proposed 27 percent increase over three years would punish shippers struggling with the weak economy and high fuel costs. Local pilots, who earn more than $250,000 a year directing huge ships through Tampa Bay, already charge the highest fees in Florida.
"The cruise industry is ... challenged by historical fuel increases and associated increases in expenses for goods and services," said Matthew Sams, a vice president of Holland America Lines. "It is simply unfathomable to us how the pilots think they have the right to ignore current economic realities."
Holland America and Carnival Cruise Lines said they will reconsider basing ships in Tampa if state regulators grant the rate hike. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the only other cruise ship operator in Tampa, also opposes the proposal.
The Tampa Bay Pilots Association contends its members need higher rates to offset increased expenses and lower income because fewer ships are calling on local ports. They are also asking for a fuel surcharge to cover higher costs of the diesel fuel their boats burn.
Average pay for a Tampa Bay pilot has dropped from $366,292 in 2006 to an estimated $262,392 this year, says the association's rate application with the state Pilotage Rate Review Board. A half-dozen pilots attended Wednesday's hearing in Tampa but didn't defend their request.
"It's not a time to debate,'' said Capt. John M. Wrasse, a local pilot. "It's to let the public express their opinion.''
Officials from a dozen businesses, trade groups and port authorities in Tampa and Manatee County raised objections.
Container carrier Zim Integrated Shipping Services said it pays $3,977 in pilot fees each time a ship docks in Tampa — about double the cost of Miami or Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
South Florida pilots make shorter trips than the minimum 4 1/2-hour trip through Tampa Bay. But local pilot fees also are higher than in Mobile, Ala. ($2,706), and Savannah, Ga. ($2,832), both with similar transit times to Tampa Bay's, said Zim.
AAA Auto Club South, which sells cruises from Tampa's port, warned that losing a ship would inconvenience its customers and hurt hotels, restaurants and attractions that cater to cruise tourists. "Push our cruise ships out, and you push tourism out with them," said CEO Tom O'Brien.
Comments from Wednesday are part of an investigation into the proposed rate hike. Richard Law, a certified public accountant, will issue his report in about a month. The rate review board is expected to hold a full hearing in Tampa later this year.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (814) 226-3384.