With a dredging timeline coming into focus, the Port St. Joe Port Authority sought during its most recent meeting to sustain independence in the face of dwindling resources and staff.

With a dredging timeline coming into focus, the Port St. Joe Port Authority sought during its most recent meeting to sustain independence in the face of dwindling resources and staff.

The Port Authority, already working under a “bare-bones” budget according to chair Leonard Costin, is down to one volunteer staff member and no port director.

Tommy Pitts, now with engineer Hatch Mott MacDonald, was recognized by the board for his years of service as both a member of the board and as port director, part of a transition the Port Authority is trying to get its hands around.

Costin has fueled a community outreach campaign that has secure $1,500 from three businesses, along with $1,000 commitments from three members of the community, one of whom expressed an interest in remaining anonymous.

The Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc. has provided $4,300 in critical operating funds and the city of Port St. Joe provided $10,000 in BP settlement funds to be used for liability insurance and dues for the Florida Ports Council.

The executive director of the EDA, Barry Sellers, was appointed earlier as assistant port director to work with Pitts and now could assume much of that work.

He attended the Florida Ports Council meeting last week in Pensacola and told the Board of County Commissioners that the EDA and Port of Port St. Joe were like “Siamese twins” in that an estimated 90 percent of economic development communication from outside the county is linked to the port.

“I think we have a little breathing room,” Costin said.

The situation with a director was complicated this week when Sellers announced his resignation effective Friday.

The Florida Ports Council is essential to the Port Authority and port development, one reason the Port Authority sought emergency funds from Port St. Joe city commissioners – who approved contributing $10,000 of BP settlement funds to pay council dues and liability insurance.

State funding for ports is, by the end of each legislative session, a product of collaborative efforts between the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Ports Council, the Florida Legislature and the governor.

With what Costin called breathing room in the short-term, the Port Authority would like to add a little more as dredging appears increasingly likely spurring development.

But proposals from board member Johanna White to turn over day-to-day operations – forwarding phones, providing the first response to interested potential clients – to The St. Joe Company met with resistance.

Port attorney Tom Gibson cautioned board members that confidentiality requirements – the port has a confidentiality agreement in place with one potential client – would not be an issue with Sellers but could be with St. Joe and its interests.

“There has to be somebody in this room who is going to have to deal with companies that want confidentiality,” Gibson said.

With Sellers leaving, who that day-to-day person will be is in unclear.

There is also, Costin noted, the perception of independence the Port Authority, as a public entity, needs to maintain as development of the port is to hinge largely on the investment of public dollars for items such as dredging.

“As long as we have the capabilities to work locally I think we should,” Costin said. “(Moving day-to-day to St. Joe) should be a fallback position.”

Outgoing board member Patrick Jones, who was succeeded last week by Jason Shoaf, also emphasized the need for independence, underscoring that the port is undergoing a lobbying campaign to raise major public dollars for dredging the ship channel.

That work, Jones said, should not be perceived as benefiting a private company, adding that the wording of the two letters of intent that St. Joe has entered into with energy companies to ship wood pellets through the port does not include the Port St. Joe Port Authority.

The board members expressed an interest in a workshop with the Port Authority’s collaborator, St. Joe, and a written agreement mapping out responsibilities for port operations.

Eugene Raffield encouraged St. Joe, which has supplied the $250,000 local match on the dredge permitting work, to resume providing a presence at Port Authority meetings and the two collaborators need to improve communications.

“A real partnership, they should have someone here,” Raffield said. “There should be an opportunity for our partner to sit down and discuss the flow of traffic. Let’s get a workshop with St. Joe, our partners, to discuss these very important issues.

“We’ve got to look at what’s best for the community to create jobs and it has to happen quick. This is a regional issue.”