FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Nassau County Candidates for Ocean Highway Port Authority District 2 respond to Fernandina Observer’s Q & A

July 17, 2020

Editor’s Note:  For the 9th straight year, the Fernandina Observer is offering candidates the opportunity to answer questions posed by our executive committee.  The goal is to inform and educate the voters of Nassau County.  We have disabled comments on this post.

 

Ocean, Highway & Port Authority District 2 Joe Francis-Zimmerman and Incumbent Danny Fullwood.

To view the candidate’s press release announcement, click on the names below.

Joe Francis-Zimmerman

Danny Fullwood

How will you turn around OHPA’s financial situation to insure a sustainable Port of Fernandina?

Joe Francis-Zimmerman

The Ocean, Highway and Port Authority have made some mis-steps the past few years in regard to their finances. The simple fact is that the multi-decade plan that was crafted and accepted – even in opposition from other local lawmakers – was not a good agreement for the Authority.
Granted, the new Port Operator took the bond debt off of the Authority – but it ultimately used that to leverage pressure in order to gain an agreement favorable to their terms. I met with and received a tour from the current Port Director in 2019 and he was polite, answered questions and spoke about some of the needs the Port has.

It is clear that the Port has some maintenance needs – but none of that changes the reality that the financial situation at the Port Authority is not strong. A financial audit submitted to the state of Florida showed falling revenues at the Port. Under the previous operator, the port generated $1.6 million dollars of revenue. That fell sharply under the new operator in 2018 and 2019, making less than 30% of what it did in 2016. The operator says this is a result of effects from the trade tariffs and the pandemic.

During this same period of time, Commissioners voted over two budget cycles to increase their salaries. In the end, their salary doubled from $1,000 per month to the full amount mandated under the charter to $2,000.

A recent dispute with an engineer over the payment due for work they performed is six figures – and looks like it may be heading to litigation.
Further, the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Tax) payments have not been made to the City in nearly two years. I wish I could say this is the exhaustive list of financial issues at the Port Authority – but it is not.

The very first thing we need to do is to roll back those salaries. When times are tough, you need to tighten the belt buckle. Right now, sustaining the current salary amount is not a good choice for the Port Authority.

Second, we need to diversify the Port so that a majority of its income isn’t derived solely from operations of the port terminal.

Lastly, we need to get our economic house in order. The Port had an opportunity for a fresh start when the previous bond debt was lifted off of the Authority – but without proper oversight they could easily end up right where they started. The actions by the board thus far, and the wide financial leeway they have given the operator, hasn’t given me confidence.

How will you turn around OHPA’s financial situation to insure a sustainable Port of Fernandina?

Incumbent Danny Fullwood

Almost every Port in the U.S. has suffered this year mainly due to Covid-19 and also due to trade restrictions. In Florida, all have suffered a decrease in tonnage except for Jax Port which has neither increased nor decreased. Although the Port of Fernandina (POF) saw a significant increase in revenue last month, the largest this year, we still face challenges.
For example:
We must increase competition on the global stage:

• must improve cargo capacity
• provide facilities and services that address port users’ needs
• develop adequate land in other parts of Nassau County
• support transportation-corridor development for efficient freight connectivity
• strive to comply with state and federal mandates without impeding the flow of commerce
• need to obtain funding and capital to expand facilities
• continue competing effectively in the global marketplace

We must build critical infrastructure and provide efficient and cost-effective services or we will lose our competitive edge on the critical trade lanes of commerce. We face increasing competition from domestic and foreign ports, it is essential that we maintain our competitive strength with targeted capital investments to expand capacity, efficiency, and connectivity and to continue creating well-paying jobs and generating other economic benefits for our local communities, the state, and the nation.
How would you address the concerns of the Coast Guard and Customs Office’s regarding their physical location at the port?

The Coast Guard does not have an office here in Fernandina, they are stationed at Mayport and cover Jacksonville and Fernandina. The Customs Office needs a significant upgrade, the current building would have to be demolished and rebuilt to make it viable. This is a priority for Customs because of their monitoring equipment for the containers coming in and out of the port. As far as a solution, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The OHPA acquiring or leasing an office trailer and installing it on the port property that would accommodate 2-3 Customs officers and all their equipment is the simplest and probably most acceptable solution that is most cost effective.

How would you address the concerns of the Coast Guard and Customs Office’s regarding their physical location at the port?

Joe Francis-Zimmerman

The Authority is currently under a time restraint to resolve this issue. Surely, the customs house contributes to public safety and security at the Port – which is a top priority of mine.

With the goal at the moment being focused on building a financial base for the Authority to be comfortably sustainable, I would want to see the various costs involved in different options that are available to the Operator and the Authority to provide border protection and customs enforcement, as well as obtain input from City and State officials on ways that the new office could help provide safety and security in the community.
I would also work with my contacts I have built through the years to seek funding relief from the state and federal level for the installation of a permanent, modern facility. The Port Operator also needs to be engaged in that conversation.

 

How would you address the concerns of the Coast Guard and Customs Office’s regarding their physical location at the port?

Incumbent Danny Fullwood

There is no doubt that we intend to keep the Coast Guard and Customs House on the POF site. However the current Customs House is falling apart. We have spent a lot of money in recent years to patch this and patch that and have managed to keep it in working order. The General Services Administration has always paid a yearly subsidy to ports to maintain their custom facilities until recently. They have cut all funding for Custom Houses to all port facilities. Any repairs and utility costs must come from our budget. We need a new Custom House. The Coast Guard has outgrown the current building. Because the building is in the historic district and may be a historical home, it cannot be demolished. The only other option is to build another building across the street from the current location. This would be designed to fit in with the historic buildings of the district and would be no larger than the current homes in the area.

 

 

How can you improve OHPA’s working relationship with the City of Fernandina Beach?

Joe Francis-Zimmerman

With the money we could save through salary rollbacks, we should bring on a part time project manager to help oversee the Authority’s interests as it relates to actions the Operator takes at the Port.

I think you cannot serve two masters. Mr. Ragucci has a responsibility to Worldwide Terminals to ensure that their company is maximizing profit. However, it also means he is not the ideal candidate to solely manage the Ocean, Highway and Port Authority’s interests as they relate to the Port of Fernandina – as they do not always align perfectly. The Operator is focused solely on the sustainability and maintenance of Worldwide Terminals, of which the Port of Fernandina is a component. The Operator supports the Port of Fernandina in a way that allows them to utilize it to achieve a goal. The Port Authority is a much broader organization encompassing the entire county, serving in a public relations role, as a policy making mechanism, a quasi-independent government entity and though they cannot legally refer to it as such – a landlord at the Port of Fernandina.

By bringing on a part time project manager/authority director, you are bringing fresh eyes to large scale problems. By doing this we have someone who is engaging with City staff and Port staff to help craft solutions to these complicated issues.

Further, we need to make the City of Fernandina Beach a partner. In order to be partners we need Port Commissioners who want to see the City of Fernandina Beach succeed in their vision and we need City Commissioners who want to see the Port Authority succeed in their vision. By nature of having two governing boards – those visions will not always be completely in sync. You cannot please everybody all the time. A sincere, intellectually honest effort though – is required.

If we can get to that place of understanding I believe we can make the relationship between the City and Port much better than it exists today. It needs to be collaborative.

However, you need elected officials that WANT to see one another be successful. That is part of being a good neighbor.

We also need to pay the past due PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Tax) payments to the City. According to a recent publication, my opponent said the City does not deserve the money. That they would have to pay for roads anyway.

It is true that the City would have to pay for roads anyway – but if the Port of Fernandina were not using that space – other residences or businesses would be there contributing to the tax base. If the Port is not contributing towards providing those services, they are essentially passing the cost of their services onto the City’s taxpayers. As a consistent fiscal conservative, I do not believe that taxpayers should subsidize the costs for port operations.

Another big concern in the City of Fernandina is environmental impacts. I think that Amelia Island is a gem, and part of being a good neighbor is to make sure we are aware of and addressing impacts to the environment as a result of Port operations.

How can you improve OHPA’s working relationship with the City of Fernandina Beach?

Incumbent Danny Fullwood

We have attempted to maintain good relations with the City. However, there are a couple of City Commissioners and a small group of citizens that find fault with everything we do. They want to see the POF fail. We have had workshops with the City and walked away feeling good afterwards but that doesn’t seem to last. There are certain things the City wants and we will continue to try and work collaboratively with them to accomplish those goals. We must increase public awareness and support for the port industry. We will attempt to increase cooperation and coordination. I am currently putting together a business model for the POF and OHPA in hopes that this will improve the relationship with the COF. As Chairman, I will recommend that we continue to have workshops with the City government to improve relations and become partners instead of adversaries.
Excluding the Port of Fernandina, what projects could OHPA, through its bonding authority, explore to benefit Nassau County and improve OPHA’s financial situation?

Excluding the Port of Fernandina, what projects could OHPA, through its bonding authority, explore to benefit Nassau County and improve OPHA’s financial situation?

Joe Francis-Zimmerman

One of the things you learn as a small business owner, is that you cannot entrust your entire future to one aspect of your business. The Port Authority was never designed with just the Port of Fernandina in mind. The Authority has been granted the ability – really the mandate – to serve as an economic driver for Nassau County.

For example, basic infrastructure needs remain a big concern on the west side of Nassau County. Cell service and high-speed internet are things I hear the most about from residents on the west side. The Port can be helpful with that infrastructure. The Port also could have served as a leader in helping hard hit and damaged parts of our county recover from hurricane damage, by assisting with bonding in public works projects. By bonding those projects, they could help generate additional streams of income.

I am excited to explore the possibilities that the Port has in contributing to the county in that way. The Port could also seek funding from the legislature to work with FSCJ and other post-secondary institutions to create a 21st century training center on Port grounds, to help educate students in high paying, logistical jobs.

If I may add an additional note:
I think we need to increase transparency at the Port. I think by streaming meetings online and ensuring documents make it online more quickly – we could more effectively communicate, build public trust and generate solutions to our challenges. I would like to see this happen as Port Commissioner.

Excluding the Port of Fernandina, what projects could OHPA, through its bonding authority, explore to benefit Nassau County and improve OPHA’s financial situation?

Incumbent Danny Fullwood

The Port Authority has broad bonding capabilities and can issue low interest bonds for any project that a developer (not roof tops) or builder may want to build. We are working with the Economic Development Board to identify projects that might need our services. Projects that could include: manufacturing, warehousing, roads, parks and recreation facilities and infrastructure development. Any one of these projects has the ability to bring high paying jobs and tax revenue to the county. The Port Authority’s role as an economic engine can provide adequate and flexible funding for “quick response” to challenges and opportunities.

Share this story!