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County Council approves port authority feasibility study amid questions of control

The St. Charles County Council agreed to hire an engineering and consulting firm to do a feasibility study on creating a county port authority, even though some members already want to limit its powers.

The council voted 6-1 on May 30 to approve a contract for a port authority feasibility study with TranSystems Corp., a consulting firm headquartered in Kansas City. The cost of the study is not to exceed $98,850. The county has $20,000 in this year’s budget for the study.

The council, particularly Councilmember Mike Elam [District 3], has been looking at re-establishing a port authority, particularly along the Missouri River.

Authorities say ports offer the ability to transfer and store cargo cheaply and can provide land for economic development and tourism. Currently, there are 15 port authorities on waterways in the state, including authorities in the city of St. Louis and in St. Louis, Lincoln and Jefferson counties. St. Charles county established a port authority in 1973, but it was disbanned in 1998.

The approval to enter into an agreement with TranSystems Corp. came with a caveat. Councilmember Joe Cronin [District 1], who voted against the contract, said he was against giving a local port authority too much power. He said port authority governing boards, appointed by the county executive, often don’t have to answer to a legislative body like a county council. Port authorities often are involved in major economic development issues.

“Once they get going, we don’t have a lot of authority over them,” Cronin said. “My issue is that we are giving those appointed people the power of eminent domain, the power to create TIFs [Tax Increment Financing], and a lot of other powers we have no oversight over.”

Cronin said the council needs to refine a port authority’s powers before “jumping into this thing.”

Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] said a port authority can move forward ideas involving marinas and ferry services on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, but he agreed that an authority’s power should be limited.

“It should be managed by elected officials who have to answer to voters,” Brazil said.

Councilmember Terry Hollander [District 5] noted that some of the concerns expressed may be addressed in the study. Councilmember Dave Hammond [District 4] agreed, saying that he supports at least looking at what opportunities a port authority offers in terms of economic development and jobs for the county.

“Without looking at the study first, I don’t see how we can make good decisions,” Hammond said.

Elam noted that the state has $6 million in taxpayer funding set aside in its budget for state port authorities. “If you don’t have a port authority, you have zero opportunity to recoup a dime of that money,” he said.

Cronin also suggested that Keith Hazelwood, the county’s counselor, could draft an ordinance creating a port authority without the help of outside consultants.

Hazelwood said the county probably could, but county officials have not been involved with an authority for some years and therefore, could benefit from the experience and expertise in maritime law of Goldstein and Price, a law firm that is part of TranSystems’ team.

John Greifzu, the county’s assistant director of administration, told the council that the pricing for the consultant is structured to mark milestones of work or phases, meaning the county could opt out if it chooses not to fully pursue a port authority

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