FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Ocean, Highway & Port Authority District 1 Candidates take part in 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 senior staff.  The goal is to inform and educate the voters of Nassau County.  We have disabled comments on this post.

OHPA Candidates District 1 are (L – R) Todd S Ericksen, Mirian Rose Hill, Incumbent Robert “Bob” Sturgess.

To read the press releases posted when the candidates’ announced their candidacy, click on the names below.

Todd S. Ericksen

Mirian Rose Hill

Robert “Bob” Sturgess

Todd Ericksen

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

The OHPA is more than just the Port of Fernandina and is in a unique position as a special district to form public/private partnerships and foster positive revenue growth to benefit the residents of Nassau County as a whole. In terms of the Port of Fernandina, once Worldwide Terminals gets on sound financial footing, the OHPA should explore other revenue streams in the logistics industry which can complement the facilities in Fernandina and Jacksonville. Additionally, having a port director that oversees business development for the OHPA, not just the Port of Fernandina is a critical step to ensuring a viable future for the OHPA.

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

Miriam Hill

Instituting adequate financial controls and transparency will help OHPA fully evaluate and understand what the current financial picture is, especially in light of the unfolding impacts of COVID and the use of PPP funds at the Port.  The Port of Fernandina has reported consistently declining revenues since 2012.  Revenues in 2019 were approximately $429,000, down from $2.8 million in 2012 and $1.8 million in 2013.  The Fernandina Port made Jacksonville headlines in early June when it posted a $6.7 million operating loss for 2019.  Some of the factors impacting the Port are macro-economic, such as tariffs, the geographic limitations of the Port, and market competition among regional ports. However, other factors are well within the control of the Port Operator and OHPA, such as recognizing the relationship-driven nature of shipping and port business generally, being consistent and timely in financial reporting, and keeping good governance practices at the OHPA board.  Making OHPA meetings more accessible will make the citizens fully informed of Port and OHPA activities.  Stopping costly legal disputes and evaluating assets to better optimize operations will result in net financial gains to OHPA and the Port of Fernandina, so that OHPA can make good on its economic promises to all of Nassau County.

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

Robert “Bob” Sturgess

The Ocean Highway & Port Authority’s (OHPA’s) “financial situation” is already turning around.  In the last 3 ½ years, we have made good progress in renovating the port facility and its financial condition.  First, the port’s $6,100,000 bond debt has been eliminated.  The task involved complex efforts and developments, but getting rid of the bond debt was a major event in the port’s history, and certainly in its financial turn-around.

Second, last year OHPA received a multi-million dollar grant in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) for maintenance dredging, which was ignored for decades when Kinder Morgan was the port’s operator.  Further, approximately two years ago, the port received over two million dollars in funding for a new crane – the first new crane in thirty years.  New fenders have also been installed on the docks. These investments and improvements not only indicate financial soundness, but will

Third, in 2019 the port received its designation as an ‘American Marine Highway’ by the United States Department of Transportation.  It is also referred to as “M-95” – a federal waterway parallel to Interstate-95.  (Finally, the name ‘Ocean Highway & Port Authority’ has meaning and a purpose.)  Becoming part of M-95 will someday generate tremendous benefits for OHPA and Nassau County, financial and otherwise.  The economic opportunity provided by the M-95 designation was emphasized when United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross visited the port in April of last year.  In his speech at the port, Secretary Ross praised OHPA’s progress and new potential for becoming a ‘gateway to the future and business opportunity’ in Nassau County and Florida.

It is correct, though, to say the port is dealing with financial challenges.  Of course it is. The new operator inherited a run-down and dangerously neglected operation and facility in 2018.  The best (and the worst) example of the prior neglect is the finding by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the 2016 death of a crane operator was the fault of poor crane maintenance by Kinder Morgan. But the steady rehabilitation of the port facility by OHPA and its operator is already contributing to the port’s financial turn-around.

Some significant financial circumstances of the port are not in OHPA’s control.  The trade war with China has crippled our steel and plywood business.  All ports in the United States are paying a price to support our justifiable fight for fair trade with China, but until and unless there is a resolution to the dispute, a robust financial turn-around for the Port of Fernandina will be stalled.

The accomplishments listed above demonstrate the port is ‘turning around’ in ways that nobody thought was possible in 2016.  Yes, there are still obstacles. Not everything has gone perfectly, and if you look at the port’s financial situation as a single snapshot, it might appear the port has not turned around sharply enough.  No undertaking such as renovating a port can be done without some folks finding things to criticize, and some of the criticism is justified. But if you look at the panorama of where we were and how far we’ve come in just three years, and view it in the context of trade wars, Kinder Morgan’s decades of neglect, and the growing pains of any restoration project, you should agree the port’s ‘financial situation’ is already turning around, and headed in the right direction.

I seek a second term as commissioner to maintain the correct heading and to keep the momentum.  Every action, and every decision I make, is for the benefit of the citizens of Nassau County, and I hope to make you more and more proud of our port.  I am asking for your vote to finish the job started in 2016.

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

Todd Ericksen

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?

Miriam Hill

The Coast Guard and Customs Office are critical to a safe and secure Port of Fernandina. I have toured the physical facilities including being briefed on the many issues with the existing facility. I have reviewed the previous lease and met the agents who utilize the Customs Office to better understand their needs.  I have had one-on-one discussions with representatives of other ports and the ports council regarding GSA to better understand what is possible and what is not.  Providing for port security and maintaining working relationships with federal agencies is a crucial part of the continued functioning of the Port of Fernandina.  As a Port Commissioner, I will move to address deferred maintenance on the customs house and restore adequate capital reserves to fund future facility needs.

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

Robert “Bob” Sturgess

One of the most important buildings in Nassau County is the one housing the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the port entrance.  CBP is the largest law enforcement agency within our Department of Homeland Security.  It regulates the flow of goods into our country and protects the U.S. and Nassau County from illegal and dangerous materials.

Not only does the CBP protect us from everything from illegal widgets to terrorist materials, it is essential for port business.  Without a CBP office at the port entrance, cargo ships would have to wait for CBP to arrive from Jacksonville to inspect cargo.  Such delays would destroy shipping efficiency at the port, and ships would simply go elsewhere to onload or offload cargo.

CBP’s concerns are two-fold.  First, the building is old.  An inspection was performed last year by the General Services Administration (GSA), which handles the lease aspects of CBP’s location on behalf of the United States government.  They decline to renew the lease due to wood rot, termite damage, deteriorating electrical components, a broken HVAC unit, and more.  (Yet another example of Kinder Morgan’s neglect of the port.)

GBP’s second concern has to do with compliance with recent federal law.  For example, the CBP office must have men’s and women’s holding cells for illegal immigration and other violations of law, as well as men’s and women’s showers and new restrooms for potential decontamination and other, more typical reasons.  The necessary renovations are extensive.

Accordingly, given that CBP’s current location at the port is critical for both security and business reasons, resolving any and all concerns CBP regarding their location at the port is essential.  The concerns of CBP are the same as the port’s and the county’s.  We must, therefore, treat CBP’s concerns as our own.  The first step is applying for various grants – both federal and state – available for the funds necessary to address the concerns, supplemented or matched by port funds, and otherwise funded in part by a reduction or elimination of the rent paid by the United States of America for CBP’s current location

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

Todd Ericksen

Acrimony and hyperbole do not make for good working relationships, because of Sunshine all meetings between elected officials must be public and that has unintended consequences whereby things can’t get hashed out. If the OHPA had a dedicated representative to meet with the City Manager and get the details worked out then presented them to the boards at a joint meeting that may be a step in the right direction. It appears as though some of the conflict is personal in nature and not just from an elected position’s perspective. That really does a disservice to the constituents of both boards. I believe in putting all the cards on the table and negotiating for the best outcome. The assumption of a small group that the Port of Fernandina or the OHPA is always up to no good doesn’t help the situation either. Anyone concerned about the OHPA and the Port of Fernandina should attend and participate in the monthly meetings.

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

Miriam Hill

Being consistent, showing up, and being professional have taken me a long way when I have represented clients in front of City Boards and Commissions.  While I was interim attorney for OHPA I helped coordinate a successful joint training session between the OHPA Commissioners and the City of Fernandina Beach Commissioners, to 1. save money and 2. foster diplomacy between the City Commissioners and OHPA Commissioners.  I have also volunteered significant time locally representing needy individuals and nonprofit organizations, and through that work, as well as through paid legal representations, have gotten to know the City staff and Commissioners.  As an OHPA Commissioner I will meet regularly with City staff.  I will be an active Commissioner, and I will speak up at meetings. I will represent OHPA consistent with its charter authority and its purpose to serve the interests of Nassau County and the State of Florida. I will keep my sworn oath, and I will bring the same positive attitude and industriousness to my role as Port Commissioner that I employ in all my professional endeavors.

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

Robert “Bob” Sturgess

For the most part, I believe OHPA’s commissioners already have a good ‘working relationship’ with City officials. I believe there is an underlying trust that each of us fully embrace our obligations towards the public’s best interests.

But the simple fact is that OHPA commissioners took a different oath of office than the City commissioners.  While City commissioners have a sworn duty to further the best interests of the City’s citizens, we OHPA commissioners have such a duty to further the best interests of all the citizens of Nassau County.  The express legislative purpose of OHPA since its establishment in 1941 is “to benefit the citizens of Nassau County and the State of Florida.”  So naturally, when the best interests of the port are at odds with those of the City, there will be disagreement, which can in threaten our working relationship – but only if we let it.

It is no different than when the County Commissioners see one path as best for the county and the City commissioners see a different path as best for the city.  Both groups of commissioners are doing their job – fulfilling their oath – in good faith.  The existence of the disagreement, however, should not necessarily mean the two sides lack a good ‘working relationship’.  Some competing interests are natural – like pre-existing conditions.

But the question presented here by the Observer seems to presume our ‘working relationship’ with the City is not good, and I can see how there might be room for improvement in almost any relationship that inevitably involves the negotiation of competing interests, especially when those interests belong to the public.

It seems like all the disputes between us, though, are inevitable.  The port, for example, needs to use trucks for transportation of goods, and the City needs to reduce truck traffic.  (Note: only about 2% of truck traffic on the island is attributable to the port.)  The City needs to expand the marina, and OHPA needs to maintain a certain width of the waterway.  OHPA wants to exercise its legal status as a tax-exempt organization, and the City wants to collect taxes.  We all work hard to resolve these important issues, but a present lack of resolution does not mean our working relationship is poor.

I am a professional mediator, certified by the Florida Supreme Court to settle lawsuits in county, trial (circuit) and appellate (district) courts throughout Florida.  I am also a court-approved arbitrator.  One could say that my job is to “improve . . . working relationships” between people in disagreement.  My approach to disagreements between OHPA and the City is to (1) avoid personal attacks, and keep the dialogue on a professional level under the presumption everyone is doing their best, and (2) find the areas of common ground and opportunities for reciprocity.  By focusing on mutual respect and a shared interest in the public good, we should always be able to find a satisfactory solution, or at least a compromise.

I have also used a ground level approach to improving OHPA’s relationship with the City’s citizens.  For example, about a year ago, a neighbor in the City’s Historic District called me with concerns about container trucks lining up outside the port’s gate.  I was told the truckers leave their engines running, park illegally, and otherwise create a nuisance for the port’s immediate neighbors, sometimes before dawn.  I went to visit the neighbor, and we walked around the neighborhood.  After a half-hour or so, I took the neighbor up to the port offices and asked to speak with the port operator’s CEO (unannounced).  After a productive meeting, the neighbor shared his ideas for a solution.  I took those ideas and secured a commitment from the port operator’s CEO to implement an appointment system.  When business at the port picks up, truckers will need to make an appointment to enter the port, thus avoiding a backup at the gate.  The only remaining step in the project is to locate a staging area for the trucks outside the Historic District, and perhaps off the island.  At this point I am trying to secure permission from the owners of the Walmart parking lot on the Winn Dixie side, where truckers would not have to back up or make a left turn to wait for their appointed time.  I am hoping this one-problem-at-a-time, one-step-at-a-time approach will – over time – help improve the working relationship between OHPA and the City.

Having represented counties and commissioners around Florida for years, I am convinced that the commissioners of the City of Fernandina Beach are among the hardest working and most competent public servants in the state.  As a City citizen, I am tremendously grateful for their honest and diligent efforts on our behalf.  The only thing I cannot do to “improve OHPA’s working relationship with the City” is sacrifice the best interests of all the citizens of Nassau County when those interests collide with the City’s.  I imagine if the City commissioners had taken a port commissioner’s oath, they would say the same thing. What I can and will do, however, is find common ground whenever possible, accommodate the City whenever reasonable, and otherwise make sure the port is the best neighbor it can be

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

Todd Ericksen

I touched on this above, but the OHPA needs to take a more pro-active role in terms of business development if that is their true goal. One meeting a month to approve bills and hear reports is not enough, workshops and executive sessions for strategic planning are critical to avoid stagnation. If elected, I would move to bring in a logistics consultant to help revamp our strategic plan and help identify viable revenue sources and feasible new ventures that complement existing industries in the area.

 

 

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

Miriam Hill

Under its Charter, OHPA has very broad powers to take on a wide variety of economy-supporting projects to benefit the people of Nassau County.  The Citizens of Nassau County have been very engaged and outspoken about the projects OHPA should consider.  Working families are concerned about good paying jobs now and for our children.  Some members of the public have inquired if OHPA could help to create shovel ready job centers, fund Nassau’s recreation facility needs, or assist with expanding the City Marina.  All of these are valid community concerns but not all are appropriate or feasible for OHPA to address alone or without cooperation with local government and stakeholders.

Looking back only 6 years, OHPA’s 2014 Master Plan included aspirations to build a rail spur at Crawford Diamond and potentially construct utilities for that site.  Consider how much OHPA’s financial circumstances have changed since then.  Without first stabilizing current operations, OHPA risks continuing as a going concern, let alone taking on any additional infrastructure projects.  Drawing upon my years of experience in Public-Private Partnerships and infrastructure, I will take the following approach as District 1 Port Commissioner: 1. work to restore the public trust by making OHPA meetings public; 2.  seek to stabilize and evaluate existing operations, ensuring that OHPA institutes adequate financial controls; 3. evaluate capacity to take on future projects; and finally 4. take a thoughtful and deliberate approach to approving any new projects, engaging fully with all of the citizens of Nassau County along the way.  I thank you for your consideration. It will be my honor to serve as your next District 1 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?

Robert “Bob” Sturgess

OHPA’s authority to issue bonds, certificates, and other instruments of indebtedness is found in Sections 16 through 25 of the Charter of the Ocean Highway and Port Authority, enacted pursuant to section 189.429, Florida Statutes.  The Charter can be found on OHPA’s website under the Economic Development link on our home page at portoffernandina.org.  When we are presented with an opportunity to participate in a bond issuance – whether as the issuer or the conduit issuer – we must rely on our bond counsel in Orlando for advice on whether a particular project is consistent with our Charter, and then the only determinations are whether the action is advantageous to OHPA and Nassau County, and is sound from an accounting standpoint.

I do not believe OHPA should generally exercise its bond authority without partnering with other local and state organizations.  There are several groups whose sole purpose is to develop projects designed for economic progress in Nassau County, most notably the Nassau County Economic Development Board (NCEDB) and its Nassau Industry Network.  The port is an integral component of the county’s trade and business logistics, along with Interstates, highways and rail. Any bond project should view the port as part of the larger infrastructure scheme rather than a solitary driver.

NCEDB has put a tremendous amount of time and effort into planning for Nassau County’s economic growth, and OHPA has been a constant contributor to those efforts.  OHPA Chairman Danny Fullwood has been active with the NCEDB for years (most recently as an NCEDB Board member) and OHPA Commissioner Michael Cole is presently Vice-Chair of the NCEDB.  I believe OHPA should support NCEDB as a partner, and bend over backwards to lend its bond authority to NCEDB whenever asked to do so.

In sum, OHPA is currently not in a position to consider a unilateral bond project.  We only recently extricated ourselves from a crushing bond debt.  But if we are approached by NCEDB to use our bonding authority to participate in its projects, OHPA should join, limited only by approval from our accounting firm and our Orlando bond counsel

 

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