Disney’s great production of Kipling’s “Jungle Book” has a parallel in recent Key West politics.  The honeyed words of the Kaa-like spokesman for Safer Cleaner Ships (SCS) were brought abruptly into clear focus at last week’s city commission meeting. Like 60% of Key West voters, the mayor and at least some commissioners have long been entranced by SCS concerning their cruise ship-restricting referenda and ordinances. They seemingly were hypnotized into believing that a group of under-informed, intolerant political activists had all the cruise ship answers. In the manner of Bagheera, the firm words of the city attorney have hopefully broken the spell that threatens to devour Key West taxpayers. 

City Attorney Shawn Smith spoke the truth of reality to commissioners at both the July 12 and Aug. 3 meetings. He strongly advised the commission not to pass the draft city ordinances submitted by SCS. He also rejected the SCS-recommended outside counsel, promising to submit a more legally viable and uncompromised list of candidates. 

Earlier, the city attorney advised the commission that any attempt to impose the ship restrictions that will cancel 95% of cruise ships on the privately owned Pier B, will result in expensive litigation. He assured them it will almost certainly cost the city – and cost them big.  Commissioner Sam Kaufman, a well-regarded attorney himself, offered that such a lawsuit could likely cost the city $100 million. Those are the numbers of insolvency. The commission appeared to be listening to the attorneys.  

In the midst of all this, city finance director Mark Finigan has thrown cold water on the false premise that revenues from cruise ship passengers have no significance to the city budget. He states that up to an 8% tax hike may be required to balance the budget while Commissioner Kaufman alerted taxpayers to the fact that inputs to the city treasury will drop by about $1M due to lost cruise ship revenues. That number may be far underestimated. In 2019, the city received about $1.6 million from Pier B alone. Fact: no matter the deceptively charming words set forth by SCS, Key West taxpayers, businesses, homeowners and renters will be paying more next year due to lost cruise ship revenue.  

With the SCS-induced trance broken, the commission can hopefully return to fiduciary rationality and choose to seek a compromise.  As the city attorney told them, the commissioners can choose to do anything they want at Mallory and the Navy Mole. But Pier B is a “different animal.”  Within the terms of the solidly clear contract between the city and Pier B, the private pier owners can operate a cruise port. Continuing to adhere to the contract terms, which not only allow, but encourage, Pier B to dock cruise ships, seems the logical solution. Allowing only smaller ships at Mallory and the Mole will diminish overall ship traffic by 40 to 50%. The city will continue to receive millions of dollars in cruise ship revenue and avoid a financially crushing lawsuit.

Now that, Mowgli, is a compromise with something for all, as the wise Baloo might say.

John E Wells

Ships’ agent (retired)

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