The commission that regulates costs of shipping on Louisiana's waterways asked Tuesday for a retired judge to intervene and decide how much to ultimately pay river pilots put in charge of oceangoing vessels bringing goods up the Mississippi River.

In a money dispute between petro-chemical manufacturers that line the Mississippi and the pilots who drive ships between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission on a 6-5 vote forwarded the issue of how to annually account for expenses to a retired state district, appellate or Supreme Court judge to decide.

The two sides will have to agree on the judge chosen.

Industry, led by the Louisiana Chemical Association, had asked the commission to order the pilots to turn over greater documentary support of the expenses claimed each year. The pilots wanted the Commission to end the discovery dispute, which basically would have renewed the mechanism used to weigh how expenses should be charged.

River pilots are paid through a rate schedule based on closely scrutinized figures that go into a formula. Rather than re-approve the rate schedule each year, which requires a lot of time-consuming paperwork, audits and debates, the Commission uses what’s called an "expense true-up" mechanism that applies projected expenses to the formula.

Industry argues that with the exception of a single year, the mechanism amounted to an automatic rate increase, with many of the pilots being paid up to $800,000 a year, which is far in excess of the agreed upon 2019 pay of $467,966.

The “true up” mechanism is up for renewal by the Fee Commission.

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The New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steam Pilot’s Association, more often called NORBA, countered that industry isn’t accounting for the impact of an increased workload on the mechanism. They also argue that pilot associations already have provided 300 pages of documents and the continued demand, including information unrelated to the issues at hand “is considered annoying, oppressive and/or inflicting undue hardship on the responding party.”

The commission is made up of equal numbers of industry and pilot representatives with three independent commissioners chosen by the governor.

The Chemical Association had challenged the independence of previously selected independent commissioners saying they were beholden to the powerful river pilot lobby and even took the matter to court. Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Michael Caldwell, of Baton Rouge, didn’t agree.

In the vote on Tuesday, two of the independent commissioners approved sending the issue to a retired judge and the third voted with the pilots.

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