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Port industries dispute need for rate increases

An association of port businesses says the Tampa Port Authority hasn't justified a variety of proposed rate increases that the public agency's board will be asked to approve today.

Port authority officials say operating costs have increased significantly since the last rate increase two years ago. Expenses for water, electricity, insurance and maintenance alone are up $1.25-million a year, in part because of new facilities built in that time, they say.

But the Port of Tampa Maritime Industries Association questions whether traditional industrial businesses and their shipping clients will be forced to foot the bill for rising costs of security personnel and cruise ship terminals.

"We're still having a difficult time understanding the need for these tax increases," said Joe Hartley, president of the group and chief executive of Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair Co., the port's largest shipyard. "It's a concern what is driving these costs increases and are they being passed all to users."

The proposal covers 11 charges, ranging from how much cruise passengers pay to park to how much ships are charged for water. But the biggest items are a 5 percent boost in how much vessels pay to tie up at a public dock and a 6 percent increase in the rate for moving cargo across those docks.

After two public hearings, port authority officials withdrew requests to eliminate the "lay dockage" discount for vessels parked at otherwise unoccupied docks and an increase in rates for small commercial passenger ships.

The way the agency handled the issue bothered some port businesses almost as much as the increases themselves.

Officials released the proposal last month, just seven days before the first public hearing _ the minimum amount of time required by law. They did not postpone a Sept. 2 workshop, although most port businesses were busy preparing for the approach of Hurricane Frances.

Port commissioners last Wednesday approved a $126.2-million budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 that anticipates $800,000 from the fee increases.

"If the tariffs aren't approved, that money will come out," said Lori Musser, a port spokeswoman.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced the port authority will get a $1.4-million grant to build a security gate at the entrance to Port Sutton. The facility is home to Tampa Electric's Gannon power plant and marine terminals on port authority and private land.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.