By Mike Phillips
It’s time to say this, and say it bluntly: The Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) has become a circus, a joke and a detriment to the citizens of Nassau County.
Though what it oversees is called the Port of Fernandina, its five-member commission is elected county-wide and does not answer to the governments of Fernandina Beach or Nassau County.
Right now, it is drifting into trouble with the Federal Department of Transportation, which gave it a $1.2 million grant to buy a tugboat that could put it in the ocean barge transport business and thereby make more money and take some truck pressure off the I-95 corridor.
OHPA took the money and bought a shiny new $800,000 tugboat, the Fort Clinch. Problem is, the Fort Clinch is too small to push ocean barges. All it can do is guide big ships into and out of the port. This has been well-known to port officials and local observers. But now the feds are in the know and are talking tough. They might want their money back if the port doesn’t get into the intercoastal barging business.
The solution: Buy a bigger tug (and a barge). That’s a million-dollar-plus problem. And OHPA is broke – so broke it had to fire its executive director to balance the budget.
That’s just the problem of the moment — though it’s a big one. But the port authority’s problems run deeper.
Just in the last few months, the commissioners:
- Got the bright idea of getting into the cruise terminal business to improve their finances. The booing came from every direction: neighbors, city officials who knew the congestion would be their problem but the sales tax revenue from passengers would flow to the county, and citizens from all over the county who like to shop and dine in Fernandina and didn’t want to contend with boat-loads of cruise passengers.
- Got the bright idea of handling huge bags of cement powder. The first shipment sent clouds of toxic powder far and wide. Watching port workers try to clean up the mess with push brooms (while not wearing the masks they had been told to wear) became a daily neighborhood sight.
- Knew they couldn’t afford the director they had hired, made him a severance offer and said goodbye.
- Heard from the director’s attorney that they should have read the director’s contract, which called for written notice well in advance. That cost them another $40,000.
- Still have not resolved an ongoing dispute with Fernandina Beach over payment in lieu of taxes for city services like street lights and police patrols. They owe the city at least $200,000.
- Still have not settled with county officials who think they owe more in property taxes. Losing that one could be a killer.
- Still have not paid their lawyers fully for handling these ongoing disputes.
- Decided some lots they own outside the port boundaries should be sold to settle their financial woes. Hired a highly regarded realtor to manage more than $2 million in land sales, then bickered at their last meeting over whether they should sell all the three parcels, just two of them, just one of them or not at all. The realtor quit in disgust – and who could blame him?
Individually, these are pretty smart, pretty well-meaning people. But they aren’t a team. They aren’t working together, which means collectively, they are a mess.
So do you think everything that could go wrong has gone wrong? Consider this:
The Port of Brunswick, just 60 miles north of Nassau County, has 1,700 acres and is adding 85 to do a major port expansion on its south side that is aimed at doing everything the 25-acre Port of Fernandina does – and more.
You can bet they have us in their sights.
Do our commissioners have a plan for dealing with this? What do you think?