Miss. River pilots await decision on raises _lowres

 

Louisiana’s chemical industry and two groups of Mississippi River ship pilots will wait to find out what happens to raises that would lift the pilots’ pay more than $50,000 by 2019 to $473,692.

After a two-hour hearing, District Court Judge Janice Clark said she plans a thorough review of the filings and did not set a date for her decision. “Several things are at play here. This is an important and serious matter, and the court is loathe to give it short attention,” Clark said.

In September, the Louisiana Chemical Association asked Clark to block the raises for the Crescent River Port Pilots Association and the Associated Branch Pilots of New Orleans.

The Crescent pilots navigate ships between New Orleans and Pilottown; the Branch Pilots from Pilottown to the mouth of the river.

LCA attorney Randy Young said the fee commission violated state law and its own rules by denying the chemical association a hearing to argue its case. The LCA asked Clark to order a commission hearing.

The LCA also disagrees with the commission’s decision to allow the pilot groups to bill for “phantom pilots,” Young said. The Crescent Pilots can charge for 122 even if there are only 117, while the Branch Pilots can bill for 49 pilots, even if they have only 47.

“This is the first time the pilotage commission said it’s OK for the pilots to recover money for pilots that don’t exist,” Young said.

David Guerry, an attorney for the Branch Pilots, said there’s no such thing as a phantom pilot. A settlement between the pilot groups and the Louisiana Maritime Association, which the fee commission approved, established “a bandwidth,” Guerry said. The agreement recognizes that shipping volumes on the Mississippi are increasing and provides some flexibility to add pilots as needed, Guerry said. The agreements set an upper limit on fees, no matter how many pilots are working, and requires the fees to be reduced if the number of pilots falls below a set number.

Paul West, an attorney for the fee commission, said the commission acted properly and in the public’s best interest in approving the agreement.

The Louisiana Maritime Association, which represents 90 percent of industry on the river, negotiated the agreements with the pilot groups, West said. The LCA is the only group opposing the agreements. West said the LCA could have had a full hearing if Young had persuaded just one commission member representing industry to vote with the chemical association.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.