LC Port Board votes to protect commercial cargo from bid process
Earlier this week, Port of Lake Charles board members took action to increase competition for companies seeking to handle bagged U.S. Department of Agriculture cargo, while protecting commercial cargo from the bid process.
In a 4-3 vote Aug. 27, the board agreed to renew its existing contract with Federal Marine Terminals, starting in February, for exclusive rights to handle commercial cargo, plus an option to renew for another year. Of the five stevedore licenses at City Docks, FMT is the only one that handles all bagged agricultural cargo, an agreement that has been in place since 2013.
The panel’s decision also opens the handling of USDA bagged cargo to FMT and another licensed company that will be approved by the board. Bill Rase, port director, said a request for proposals will be issued to determine which additional stevedoring company will be considered to handle USDA bagged goods.
The decision, Rase said, protects local commercial agricultural business “from any kind of upheaval.” The port currently ships virtually 100 percent of local commercial bagged agricultural cargo.
The board rejected an option that would have opened commercial cargo and USDA bagged cargo for bids.
Rase said two local suppliers asked the board to approve the option that protected commercial cargo.
“We looked at our customers who ship commercial and considered what they wanted,” he said. “The port is here mainly for its customers and the transfer of cargo.”
Changing technology, Rase said, has shrunk the market. According to a report by the port, bagged cargo handled at City Docks has dropped from nearly 300,000 tons in 2013, to just over 150,000 tons last year.
Today, most bagged cargo is shipped in containers, which requires fewer longshoremen. Years ago, roughly 100 workers would load a ship for about two to three weeks.
“The container is our version of the computer,” he said. “The issue is how do you support a port that has historically sought to be in the bagged business?”
Every port in the U.S. has seen a drop in organized labor, according to Rase.
“We would love to have 200 people out there every day, but you need to have something for them to do,” he said.
Iraq, Columbia and the Dominican Republic are the only commercial markets still taking shipments of bagged rice, and those shipments “are all on a very sporadic basis,” according to the report. Haiti, the largest market for southern U.S. milled rice, uses 100 percent bulk vessels for shipment.
Raymond Dallas, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 2047, criticized the port for not making the adjustments to the changing market. He said longshoremen have “made sacrifices and taken cuts” over the years.
“We’re here for one reason: work,” Dallas said. “I would hope the longshoremen would, one day, be just as important to this administration and these dock board members as you guys are to us.”
Others commented about longshoremen not having seen a pay raise in years and said the option chosen by the port board was unfair. They said the option that would have opened commercial cargo and USDA bagged cargo for bids would bring in more competition.
Port Board member David Darbonne said commissioners should think about growing the district and giving stevedore companies the opportunity to be more competitive.
Rase said the Calcasieu Ship Channel isn’t large enough to handle the size of container ships, and the port doesn’t have enough space for container facilities.
The overall tonnage at City Docks has not decreased, but because more of it is shipped in bulk, it requires fewer labor, Rase said.
Rase said the USDA is also buying less bagged cargo, largely because of budget restraints and a cheaper product is available in other countries. Also, local rice mills are selling more to domestic markets than before.
Port board members agreed in January to spend time researching ways to increase business at City Docks. They also agreed to extend its contract with Federal Marine Terminals for one year while the board studied the issue.
Voting for the agreement were Dudley Dixon, Mike Eason, Elcie Guillory and John LeBlanc. David Darbonne, Carl Krielow and Thomas Lorenzi were opposed.
Lake Charles Port Board director Bill Rase said the overall tonnage at City Docks has not decreased, but because more of it is shipped in bulk it requires less labor.