Port Whine

Miami-Dade County's proposal to privatize public marinas has mariners up in arms

On August 23, 1992, the day after Hurricane Andrew decimated parts of South Florida, Robert Hammel arrived at Matheson Hammock County Marina, where he works as a park attendant. He found twisted metal piers and 40-foot boats marooned in parking lots more than 100 feet from the shore. Some craft were skewered on pilings, staved in, totaled. Sea grapes, palms, and other trees were stripped bare.

"Hiroshima, that's what it looked like," he recalls, standing in the second-floor dockmaster's office, which survived only by luck. The Miami-Dade Marine Patrol facility, on the first floor of the same building off Old Cutler Road, was inundated by a fourteen-foot tidal surge and destroyed.

Up and down the coast, county marinas were damaged. At Black Point in South Miami-Dade and the Hoover Marina in Homestead, losses were substantial. Docks and equipment at Haulover Park just north of Miami Beach and Crandon Park on Key Biscayne were swamped by storm surges. Only one county facility, Pelican Harbor on the 79th Street Causeway, escaped destruction. The storm left in its wake not just wrecked planks, vessels, and electrical systems, but reluctance on the part of many boaters to return their crafts to the water.

After Andrew marina revenues plummeted. Both Matheson and Black Point operated in the red for three years and profits at Hoover declined sharply. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Inland Navigational District (FIND) contributed $11.8 million to help rebuild the facilities. As a result much of the county's marina infrastucture is new. In addition FIND approved $1.4 million to expand Haulover and build a breakwater there. Today the number of available berths almost equals the pre-Andrew total. Overall county-owned marinas turned a profit of more than $2.2 million in 1997, according to Bill Cutie, director of the county parks and recreation department.

Nonetheless on December 1 Miami-Dade commissioners began a process that could end with a private company taking over operation of the six county marinas. The commissioners approved a request for proposals (known as an RFP) for the task without discussion. They cast that vote despite a petition signed by 85 privatization opponents and faxed to their offices. The opponents had also expressed their displeasure to Steve Spratt, senior assistant to the county manager. One petition signer, Darlene Oliphant, a Crandon tenant, attended the county commission meeting but was not given a chance to voice her opposition. Oliphant complained after the meeting, received an apology, and was permitted to address commissioners on December 15. On that date the commission confirmed its earlier decision to issue the RFP.

Why would the county, after using taxpayer money to build the marinas and to rebuild them after Andrew, offer them to private enterprise to operate? As one veteran county marina employee put it: "If you just renovated your house, would you give it up to your in-laws?"

County officials insist the RFP is just a way to test the waters. "We are not necessarily going to privatize," emphasizes Spratt. "What we are trying to do is determine how private enterprise would run things and then see what we can learn." Cutie emphasized the same point in a letter to marina tenants. In fact, parks department employees will submit a plan to keep control of the marinas.

But some marina users aren't convinced. They fear docking fees will rise and county coffers will be drained. They are particularly suspicious of one potential bidder: Westrec Marinas, the United States' largest private marina management firm, which garnered revenues of more than $50 million in 1997. Though the company has hired two lobbyists, state Sen. Ron Silver of North Miami and Susan Fried of Coral Gables, to make its case, Westrec president Bill Anderson is still deciding whether to bid.

Privatization opponents are extremely wary of the Encino, California-based firm. They insist other South Florida marinas that Westrec manages, Harbour Towne in Dania Beach and Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, charge much more for docking space than publicly controlled facilities. Some county tenants also doubt Westrec's management abilities, noting the company has forfeited ownership of at least four South Florida marinas during the past three years after failing to make loan payments. Anderson denies any mismanagement and insists Westrec's former owners assumed too much debt in the 1980s, which made it impossible for the company to profit from those marinas. Anderson points to Westrec's success in increasing revenues for the city of Chicago, where his firm manages 4500 municipal boat slips.

Anderson also challenges Miami-Dade's present docking charges. "Is the county subsidizing a limited number of boaters?" he asks. "That's one question people there have to ask."

Boating is serious business in South Florida. A total of 53,330 vessels are registered in Miami-Dade, according to the Florida Marine Patrol, more than in any other county in the state. Of that number 50,591 are pleasure craft, ranging from skiffs to multimillion-dollar luxury yachts. Most of those vessels are stored on trailer hitches in driveways or back yards, or are tied to private docks behind waterside homes. But as of 1997 private marinas offered at least 12,820 berths, both wet slips and dry storage racks, according to the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), which issues permits to such facilities. That figure does not include operations smaller than ten slips, which are unregulated by DERM.

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