Manatee port furloughs will end ASAP

mjohnson@bradenton.comMarch 26, 2014 

PORT MANATEE -- Citing new business brought to Port Manatee over the last six months, port leadership said monthly furloughs of the port's 54 employees will end as soon as possible.

Manatee County Port Authority Chairwoman Carol Whitmore said the port has replaced much of the business and revenue it lost when fertilizer giant The Mosaic Co. decided to stop shipping fertilizer components from Port Manatee. The port had for decades relied on the phosphate fertilizer shipping business as one of its top income generators.

Port officials announced the furloughs in December. All port employees were expected to be furloughed one day a month through September. Whitmore said the furloughs will likely end sooner because of new revenues. But she wouldn't say exactly when it will happen.

"It's almost been made up, but we have to be cautious," she said.

Mosaic ended its shipping contract with Port Manatee tenant stevedoring company Kinder Morgan last summer. Kinder Morgan handled Mosaic's phosphate shipments for years out of a warehouse it owns on port property. The last shipment of Mosaic phosphate left the port almost three weeks ago.

In the wake of Mosaic's departure, the port notified two of its railroad employees that they would be laid off. Mosaic phosphate was transported into the port via rail cars pulled by port-owned switching engines.

Anticipating the loss of rail volume, the port went ahead with the layoffs. Dave Sanford, the port's deputy executive director, said both of the employees identified for layoffs were eligible to take retirement instead. At least one of those

employees did so, he said.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "You don't like to have to do that."

Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director, said Mosaic's pullout amounted to a loss of several hundred thousand dollars in revenue for the port. He said the port has yet to calculate the exact financial loss.

Mosaic shifted its fertilizer shipments to a port terminal it owns south of Tampa Bay. Port Manatee officials said they never got the chance to fight for Mosaic's business. Even if they had, Buqueras said bulk shipments of fertilizer were eventually going to dwindle at the port. He and Whitmore said the local phosphate fertilizer market has "decreased by about 50 percent."

Buqueras said the port is putting more emphasis on shipping value-added products, such as cars, fruit products and refined aluminum.

He said the port needs a larger, more diversified client list, and to have less reliance on shipping commodities like phosphate.

In addition to generating new business, the port is instituting "cost saving measures" to reduce the term of the furloughs. Those measures include having port personnel do repairs on air conditioning and refrigeration systems rather than contract the work out, and cutting lobbying costs by partnering with Manatee County.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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