By Mike Lednovich
The Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) has so little money available that it is struggling to find $17,000 in next year’s budget to give its office manager a pay raise and health coverage benefits.
Now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wants OHPA to spend anywhere from $1 million or more to build a new agency inspections office at the Port of Fernandina.
The CBP office in Jacksonville has sent OHPA a letter demanding to know how OHPA plans to fund the construction of a new office. The letter from Jennifer Bradshaw, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Area Port Director in Jacksonville, also spells out the agency’s dissatisfaction with having been promised a new facility at the port for several years with no signs of progress.
“To efficiently, and successfully perform its mission, CBP requires appropriate, up-to-date inspections space at the Port,” Bradshaw stated in the letter. The director cited previous failed promises from OHPA to construct a new building.
“OHPA previously agreed to construct a new CBP facility that meets current CBP standards. On Nov. 19, 2020, your staff stated that the new CBP facility is a priority and that it is part of OHPA’s capital planning,” Bradshaw wrote. “On June 23, 2023, I had a conversation with David Kaufman, executive director for OHPA … stating that the multi-purpose building for CBP and OHPA was removed from OHPA’s master plan due to the decision to not pursue the small cruise ship market, which would have provided the funding source for the project.”
Bradshaw said Customs was unaware and not informed that CBP’s new facility had been removed from the master plan.
The Customs director wrote that “OHPA must provide suitable Federal Inspection Services space in which CBP can conduct its inspections.” She said OHPA must provide Customs with an explanation of how OHPA will fund a new facility as well as a detailed date schedule for implementation.
“I received a call today from Customs and was told in no uncertain terms that they have drawn a line (in the sand regarding a new Customs house),” said OHPA Commissioner Ray Nelson at last Wednesday’s district meeting. Nelson’s comments and the ensuring discussion were before OHPA had received Bradshaw’s letter.
“From my conversations, they’re looking for a definitive answer (regarding a new facility),” Nelson said. “I’ve said in previous meetings time and time again, this is not going away and they (Customs) are at the end of the road. CBP has been put on the back burner and now we’re feeling the repercussions of that.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently has a lease agreement ending in April 2024 at the current Customs building at Third and Dade streets. Customs has said repeatedly that the converted single family house is in dire need of upgrades and is not large enough for the agency to conduct port business. The port recently had to replace an air conditioning unit at the facility.
“The port operator has to be part of the discussion,” said Chairman Danny Fullwood, making reference to OHPA’s financial condition. “I don’t think CBP has been put on the back burner. We just don’t have any answers. They want a new facility, we don’t have the money to build a new facility. Does the operator still want them to be here, if not and If they go away, how is that going to hurt us?”
Since OHPA doesn’t have the money, Fullwood is hoping that Savage, the operator of the port, will step in with financial assistance. Savage has not made its position clear and made no indication at the OHPA meeting where it stood on the matter.
Nelson said he was told by Customs that the agency had met with Savage. “But I don’t know what that meeting was about,” he said.
Last June, Nelson said the Port of Fernandina could potentially lose its “port of entry” designation because it does not have the money to build the new Customs facility.
The port of entry designation means the Port of Fernandina is authorized by the CBP to carry out customs and immigration operations including conducting inspections, processing immigration documents, collecting duties and taxes, and enforcing import and export regulations. It grants the port the authority to serve as an official point of entry for international trade and travel.
In the Customs’ letter, the director said “The Port of Fernandina currently needs CBP inspections for agricultural, anti-terrorism, immigration, and customs inspections of vessels, cargo, and crew arriving from foreign at or exiting to foreign from the port.
“Port of Fernandina business has included examinations of imports and exports from/to South and Central America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East, Europe, North America, Africa, Australia and Oceania.”
She stated that options such as renovating or expanding the existing facility and building or acquiring a new facility “have been discussed with CBP numerous times over the years.”
Bradshaw put OHPA on notice that it could not serve the Port of Fernandina from its Jacksonville facility.
The problems with CBP are more than a year in the making. Customs had previously sent OHPA a letter informing the port that the memorandum of agreement (MOA) outlined what the agency believes are OHPA’s responsibilities regarding the facility.
During its meeting, Fullwood directed Kaufman, Nelson and Butch Gilbert of Savage to meet with CBP and work out a solution.