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April 10, 2017 11:00 AM, EDT
JaxPort Discussed Asking for $93 Million to $167 Million to Deepen Port
Jacksonville Port Authority

JaxPort officials discussed with city administrators Jacksonville paying between $93 million and $167 million to deepen 13 miles of the St. Johns River to accommodate larger ships with more cargo, according to e-mails former port authority CEO Brian Taylor deleted from his computer during his resignation last month.

Jacksonville Port Authority executives have not asked the city for a specific contribution, although Mayor Lenny Curry has indicated he is supportive and expects the city to contribute to the almost $700 million project.

Interim port authority CEO Eric Green, the likable lobbyist who leapfrogged higher-ranked, longer-tenured executives to get the post, told City Council members April 5 they can expect an official request in the next 45 to 60 days. When a key councilman asked him what the port authority has looked at asking, Green declined to give a number or range.

“They’re not small,” Councilman Bill Gulliford said of the numbers detailed in the e-mails.

“With the kind of needs we have in the city right now, that is a significant amount of money,” said Gulliford, who called the meeting to talk about funding. “Even the low end is a significant amount of money. It will be interesting to see what my colleagues think about how we come up with that.”

JaxPort is at a critical juncture, with an interim CEO at the helm as the agency seeks funding for the expensive, controversial deepening project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would manage the project, has the engineering and design in place to deepen the river from 40 feet to 47 feet and is waiting for a funding plan from the port authority to move forward. And the authority cannot craft a feasible funding plan without an agreement for a contribution from the city. But city officials haven’t yet been told how much the authority needs.

While the port authority, city and state are hopeful the federal government will contribute more than $300 million to the dredging, federal officials are clear there will be no federal money until the local government shows its commitment and participates.

So progress on the project lags as port authority executives work through a funding request for the city and city officials determine the city’s commitment.

But Green and port authority board Chairman James Citrano say they are confident the project will move forward and are optimistic construction will begin by the end of the year.

“We made a commitment to the city we will not execute until we show all the funding is coming,” Green said.

Hundreds of Taylor’s e-mails, retrieved by port authority staff in response to a public records request, reveal Taylor reached out to other maritime executives as he began searching for another position, expressed his concerns about business and finances at the port, and worked to determine how much help to ask for from the city for the massive $684 million deepening project.

Taylor, in a statement from his attorney Cindy Laquidara, said he knew the emails were backed up on the port authority server and they were retrievable, and he was deleting them to return his laptop computer to the agency.

When asked about the deleted e-mails, Citrano said he had not heard about the deletions, adding, “I’m not real alarmed by his deleting them.”

Citrano said he does not believe Taylor left on bad terms with the board, but that he and his predecessor, Paul Anderson, came from the private sector and had difficulty maneuvering comfortably at the public agency. Taylor had “incredible strengths,” including “really knowing” maritime business, he said.

While Taylor questioned finances and business at the port in some of his e-mails, top finance staff said last week that some of those numbers were expected, some were better than forecast and there was no cause for alarm. They said Taylor was involved and it was typical for him to comb through the monthly numbers and push them for answers.

E-mails only tell a partial story, according to the statement from Taylor, and those were private conversations he would leave to port authority officials to discuss.

Taylor has nothing critical to say about his former employer, according to the statement, and enjoyed his time with JaxPort.

The port authority board voted 6-1 on March 8 to terminate Taylor’s contract. The separation came after a board member raised concerns about his meeting attendance in the last year and his handling of negotiations last year with a key tenant. Taylor was CEO for less than four years.

In the funding scenarios shared by e-mail between JaxPort officials and eventually with the city, the port authority would pay between $76.4 million and $150.8 million between this year and fiscal year 2025.

Green said last week the various proposals, which included the city contributing between $93 million and $167 million, were discussed with the Curry administration, but those numbers are a “work in progress” and not definitive. He said probably a “dozen more” have been discussed in meetings and e-mails.

While President Obama and President Trump each said they want to deepen the port, that support has not translated to federal dollars.

“We have no assurance of the federal funding,” Gulliford said.