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Council approves reestablishment of County Port Authority

At its April 12 meeting, the St. Charles County Council unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement between the county and the St. Charles County Port Authority. The legislation (Bill No. 4943), which had received a first reading on March 29, was requested by County Executive Steve Ehlmann and endorsed by council chairman Mike Elam (District 3) and council members Joe Brazil (District 2) and Terry Hollander (District 5).

The existence of a St. Charles County Port Authority, which may come as a surprise to some readers, is actually an entity that has been years in the making and has a county past. The original port authority was established in 1973 but disbanded in 1998. Those who support the re-chartering of this bureau say that having such an organization allows for easy and efficient shipping and storage of cargo, and can supply the impetus for tourism and economic development. Supporters at the April 12 meeting also noted that having a port authority will stand the county in good stead when the time comes for doling out anticipated federal infrastructure funds.

Those opposed argued on March 29 against endowing a quasi-public authority with too much power. Council member Joe Cronin (District 1) was the most skeptical of the council members when the debate on this issue began back in 2017. He argued that such an entity, which would be involved in major economic development issues needed to be made answerable to an elected legislative body, presumably the county council. At the time, Cronin said of the port authority, “Once they get going, we don’t have a lot of power over them. My issue is that we are giving those appointed people the power of eminent domain, the power to create TIFs, and a lot of other powers we have no oversight over.”

Brazil, Hollander and council member Dave Hammond (District 4) echoed Cronin’s skepticism in 2017, although they ultimately came out in favor of the idea.

The creation of a port authority board eventually came to fruition in fall 2019. The board, however, like much of the nation ran headlong into the COVID-19 crisis and efforts related to its establishment were paused.

Jennifer George, the county’s assistant director of administration, is the point of contact between the port authority board and the council. At the March 29 meeting, she described the port authority board as “…trying to define who they are, what their role is and how to help in key projects.” She noted that the board had conducted three meetings and plans to hold meetings at 8 a.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Those meetings are open to the public.

On April 12, Cronin reiterated his concerns and said that, while he would vote for the bill, he was very cautious about it.

“I am really worried about unelected people with authority over eminent domain, tax rates and countywide TIF (tax increment financing) districts. We need to keep these people on a short string,” Cronin said.

However, he did admit that having the port authority in place would help the county in receiving a fair share of the infrastructure payout, but added he that he would hate to see it abused.

Brazil tried to reassure his colleague by stating that the members of the port authority board were appointed by the county executive to two-year terms and were answerable to the council and to other county and state officials.

“So the checks and balances are right there,” Brazil said.

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