PORT MANATEE -- Manatee County commissioners' No. 1 concern for next spring's legislative session is avoiding an unwanted takeover of Port Manatee by its bigger neighbor, the Port of Tampa.
"I really need this to be a top priority," Port Chairwoman Carol Whitmore said Tuesday, noting she has been getting indications state legislation might be afoot to force such a merger.
Top Port Manatee officials have been meeting with Florida Department of Transportation officials to discuss port consolidation unless efficiencies and an adequate return on investment can be proven, said Whitmore.
"There's a lot of stuff behind the scenes the ports are doing," Whitmore said.
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FDOT officials have asked to meet with her about it, she said, but no meeting has been scheduled yet.
"To hear they asked to meet with us last week, it makes me nervous," she said. "I'm just trying to ensure that Port Manatee remains in
She said she "totally supports" running an efficient port that produces a good return on investment, and would welcome the chance to show Port Manatee is in that category.
"What we don't support is the state mandating that we work together, or possibly merge with another port," she said.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said rumors of a forced merger were "absolutely not true."
"The process for doing that would have to come from the local level up," he said. "My understanding is that the county owns the port, so that would be a county-level decision."
Brandes, chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee, said there is always discussion about more collaboration among the three ports operated by Tampa, Manatee and St. Petersburg.
Told of his comments, Whitmore said she was relieved to hear such assurances.
The 2014 legislative priority list, after the commissioners' discussion Tuesday, states as its top priority: "Manatee County SUPPORTS the ability for Port Manatee to operate as an independent entity and would OPPOSE efforts to consolidate or remove autonomy from Port Manatee. Manatee County SUPPORTS action that would facilitate business collaboration and marketing opportunities with neighboring ports."
Listed second is support for the state to take "full responsibility for funding and operation of detention facilities serving juveniles," while the third priority calls for beach renourishment grants in 2015, according to the document provided by Nick Azzara, county information outreach coordinator.
Port Manatee's autonomy is secure and there's no basis for concern, assured state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
"There is no legislation in drafting or filed that would force a merger of the ports, nor am I aware of any legislation contemplated," he said. "The idea of our ports working together collaboratively is something I'm interested in, as well as other members of the bay area legislative delegation, but it is something that would have to come from a partnership with the port, and not from the Florida Legislature."
Next year's legislative session will convene March 4 in Tallahassee.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.