A proposed fee hike for the harbor pilots who guide cruise and cargo ships into Tampa Bay is causing an uproar from companies that do business at local ports.
The Tampa Bay Pilots Association’s proposal, which would boost pilots’ average income by more than $200,000 per year, has been in the works since before the pandemic, and was officially filed with the state in August. Yet port leaders and partners say the proposal came out of nowhere, and was only “discovered by word of mouth” days later, according to Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson.
“The impact of these proposed increases and additional new fees will be felt far into the future, and will influence decisions about bringing business to the ports in Tampa Bay for years to come,” Anderson wrote in a letter to the Florida Board of Pilot Commissioners, which governs pilots’ pay.
The port is one of more than 40 corporations and industry groups that have voiced opposition to the request, and are asking the governor-appointed board to deny the raise, or at least push back a hearing to rule on it that’s set for Thursday in Tampa.
“I don’t think anybody would disagree that the pilots, like anybody else, deserve a pay increase,” port commissioner Patrick Allman said at a Feb. 21 board meeting. “I think that’s a given, given the inflation we’ve had in the last couple of years. I’m not sure (about) the increase they’re asking, though; it’s pretty over the top. Hopefully, a middle ground can be found.”
Tampa Bay Pilots Association executive director Terry Fluke said many port leaders and businesses should have known for months, if not years, that the request was coming.
“It’s not been a secret within Port Tampa Bay,” he said. “We were sort of caught off guard on some of the objections and the tone of the objections, and some of the accusations that we didn’t follow proper protocols and notification. Everything was done properly at the state level. Once I hit the send button and send that application to the state, it’s out of our hands.”
Harbor pilots navigate ships through local channels and hazards into and out of Florida’s deep-water ports. There are about 18 pilots in Tampa Bay, covering ports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee County; and about 100 statewide.
Pilots associations are not public bodies, but they are regulated by the state, like utilities. The Tampa Bay Pilots Association is financed through fees assessed on ship owners or operators and calculated by multiple factors, including the length of a ship and gross tonnage of its cargo.
Local harbor pilots’ average net compensation was $443,000 in 2022, according to a state review of the proposal. Under the changes, that would increase to $654,000 — more than most ship captains, and even more than Anderson, whose base salary is nearly $553,000.
The raises — as well as new boats, boat maintenance and a new fueling station near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge — would be paid for by a variety of rate increases that the association said would initially raise overall fees by around 3% to 10% per customer. The state’s review found that rates would actually rise much higher, especially compounded over time. Port Tampa Bay estimated fee hikes could raise companies’ fees by 183% or more, costing companies thousands more dollars per trip.
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“These rates will ultimately be passed through to the consumers and result in higher prices for consumer goods, energy prices and construction materials,” the port’s legal counsel, Charles Klug, said in an email.
How it came to be that the port didn’t see the application until January could be a matter of misread communications. In emails last summer, Fluke and Raul Alfonso, the port’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, discussed meeting to go over the proposal before it was filed. Alfonso asked for the proposal before sharing some possible meeting dates. Fluke asked for the dates before sharing the proposal. The thread petered out, and the meeting never happened.
When the port scrambled to address the application in January, Alfonso wrote to Fluke: “I guess we should have revisited the communication trail.”
In letters of opposition calling the proposed hikes “destructive” and “devastating,” port leaders and businesses did not say how they missed public notices about the proposal; only that they had no time to respond before the state’s formal review. Corporations including Royal Caribbean, Del Monte, Mosaic Co. and the American Petroleum Institute were among those filing objections; as were two port commissioners, Allman and Hung Mai, who have businesses there.
In a letter responding to an inquiry by state Sen. Jay Collins of Tampa, nonprofit government spending tracker Florida TaxWatch called the proposed hikes “problematic” and asked the state to delay Thursday’s hearing.
“We conclude that the new fee proposal could have a negative impact on the port, along with shipping companies, longshore labor, and other transportation and logistics service providers throughout the supply chain, as well as customers such as exporters, importers and the cruise industry and its passengers,” TaxWatch president and CEO Dominic Calabro wrote. “This impact could ripple through Florida’s economy. And of course, the impact will ultimately be felt by consumers in the form of higher prices.”
Fluke said the raises are needed to keep pace with pilots’ salaries at similar ports. Port Tampa Bay imports much of the state’s fuel and other chemical cargo, and he wants “the best possible pilots that we can attract.”
“I want the A-team in Tampa, moving some of the cargos that we move,” he said, “and if we’re not competitive with other ports on the Gulf Coast and the state of Florida, we’re not going to get the A-team.”