Port Whine

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

In 1972 county voters approved a bond issue that helped pay for facilities at Homestead Bayfront Park and Black Point, in South Miami-Dade. State environmental concerns delayed construction and it wasn't until 1988 that all the marinas were completed. The total investment of public funds over the years was at least $20 million. By 1991 county marinas were turning a profit of $2.3 million.

Then Andrew hit. The storm knocked all of Black Point's 224 slips out of commission. Over the next three years the marina lost $294,000. Matheson's 252 berths were unusable, and over the same period it lost $188,000. At Hoover Marina profits dropped from $125,151 in 1991 to $50,579 in 1992.

Many of the destroyed piers were balanced on wooden pilings. They were eventually replaced with floating docks that are much less vulnerable to large storms. That construction forced the county to temporarily close some marina slips, so profits fluctuated. This year, because parts of Crandon will be closed for renovation, revenues are expected to dip again, though overall profits for county marinas are expected to remain at current levels.

The marinas have only nine full-time employees. Part-time workers, mostly attendants who oversee parking lots and boat ramps, put in 49,000 hours per year.

"I don't know why they think they need to change anything," says Wes Puller, captain of the Sea Vous Play, a charter fishing boat docked at Crandon. "The county is making money and the people who use the marinas are happy with the way they are being run. We don't understand what this [privatization] is about, except that somebody is going to be making money that the county could make. Explain that to me."

The idea of privatizing the marinas can be traced to a December 1997 memo by Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas proposing the Efficiency and Competition Committee. The mayor predicted that government would have to economize. "Much discussion has occurred about the benefits of privatizing certain public services," Penelas wrote. He said private enterprise should be given a chance to propose ways of running selected services. RFPs would be issued and county employees would be allowed to bid. In practice those employees enjoy certain advantages: They aren't required to pay for expensive performance bonds, which private firms must purchase; they receive help from other county departments in formulating proposals; and they get special consideration because they are county employees.

The mayor cited Indianapolis's experience using a similar cost-cutting strategy in the 1990s. In one example municipal employees submitted the winning proposal and retained the job of servicing a fleet of cars. In another a private firm took over a water-treatment facility.

Penelas appointed Commissioner Jimmy Morales to head the committee and named four private-sector representatives, two labor leaders, and two senior county officials to the body. The mayor anticipated opposition: "Frankly, I am aware of numerous potential changes that will be politically contentious and difficult to implement, but we must be prepared to make these decisions," he stated.

Since inception the committee has twice issued RFPs for public services. In both cases county employees won the contracts. One instance involved meal service in county jails and the other, management of the county water and sewer department.

The notion of extending the idea to marinas started to circulate last spring. Restaurants, fuel docks, and bait shops are already leased to private contractors at most marinas. Some private concessionaires have been awarded contracts to run dry storage services because they were willing to make capital improvements, explains Bill Cutie of the parks department. For example, Westrec already runs the boat racks at Haulover. It took over the contract from another firm two years ago and has invested about $500,000 to fix damage caused by Andrew, Groenewald estimates. Cutie praises Westrec's performance.

But basic services at most marinas, wet slips, and dry storage have always been run by the county. Even if those services are privatized, the county will retain control of boat ramps, which earn eight dollars every time a vessel is put in the water.

County Manager Merrett Stierheim approved the marina RFP in November. It requires interested firms to bid on at least two marinas, including Haulover Park and Pelican Harbor. The choice of those two facilities makes privatization opponents suspicious that Westrec has the inside track. The company already manages Haulover, and Pelican Harbor is nearby. Moreover, Pelican Harbor has run in the red for several years, making it ripe for privatization.

One key provision of the RFP: The county commission will have the power to control the maximum leasing rates for boat slips. Opponents don't believe that will hold down rates. "This is a no-brainer," says Anthony Chiocca, who docks at Crandon. "It's simple mathematics. In order for a private firm to give to the county what the county already makes now and earn a profit on top of that, it will have to raise rates. We will all be forced out."

"Of course they'll raise the charges," insists Jay Silbert, a Matheson Hammock tenant. "Given what the county charges now, it will be the only way."

"We have the same concern," says Dwayne Powell, head of a boaters organization at Hoover, who wrote a letter to Cutie decrying privatization.

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