Tampa Bay’s cruise and cargo ship pilots will get the pay raise they wanted. Most of it, anyway.
After a long day of debate and deliberation, the state board that governs harbor pilots’ pay voted Thursday night to approve a downsized version of a fee hike proposal sought by the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, which navigates ships coming into and out of the bay.
Leaders at Port Tampa Bay and dozens of companies that do business there had strenuously objected to the hikes, which they said were proposed for state review without sufficient public notice. Port CEO Paul Anderson said the higher fees could be “devastating” to the local shipping industry, which pays most of the fees that fund the pilots’ group.
But at the end of a 12-hour hearing in Tampa, the state’s Board of Pilot Commissioners approved the plan as submitted, minus a couple of concessions from the pilots.
The pilots will still see 6% annual rate hikes in the first three years, and 3% annual hikes for the next seven. But once final bills are tallied, the group agreed to discount them by 20% in the first year and 10% in the second. Most of the pilots’ other requests, including a new fee to pay for a fueling facility near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, were approved.
The pilots’ association was still crunching the numbers, said Terry Fluke, executive director of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, but he expected the overall impact of their concessions would be in the “low hundreds of thousands.”
“At the end of the night, we were pleased with the outcome,” Fluke said. “We feel really good over the next 10 years that we’re going to be able to meet the demands on the port community, as far as moving vessels in and out.”
The group expects to add four new pilots to its fleet of 18 in the coming months. With the new hires, the Tampa Bay pilots’ average annual compensation would be $564,000, according to a state review.
About a dozen opponents signed up to speak at Thursday’s hearing, including representatives from Royal Caribbean, Tampa Electric Co. and the Tampa Maritime Alliance. Part of their objection was that they needed more time to review the deal’s potential economic impact. The pilots’ group filed its application with the state in August, and the state posted a public notice of upcoming hearings on Jan. 4, but the port and its associated businesses say they didn’t see the proposal or know about the hearings until mid-January.
In a statement, Port Tampa Bay legal counsel Charles Klug said the port was “disappointed” by the board’s decision.
“Although the concerns of our maritime community were heard, in part, and a few minor concessions were approved, the pilots will receive the full rate request beginning in the third year,” he said. “Port Tampa Bay feels that the long-term impacts for these dramatic increases in pilotage rates and additional new fees to our customers and consumers are not fair, just or reasonable.”
The state will turn Thursday’s ruling into an official order that Fluke said should go into effect this summer.
“We got pretty much what we asked for,” he said. “We were happy with the outcome, and we’re ready to move on and keep ships moving.”