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Huber wants to send Bar Pilots Commission into sunset

In politics, one often hears about the power of sunlight. But Assemblywoman Alyson Huber also wants to revive the power of sunset.

Huber, an El Dorado Hills Democrat and chair of the two-house Joint Sunset Review Committee, is flexing that body’s power to discontinue boards and commissions via a Capitol process known as the “sunset,” in which the panels have to demonstrate their worth or face extinction. One of her early targets is an obscure yet sometimes controversial body representing a group of very highly-paid professionals: the Board of California Pilot Commissioners.

Huber’s AB 656, which was heard Monday in the Assembly Transportation Committee, would place a Jan. 1, 2013 sunset date on the commission, which has been in existence since 1850. The bill passed 8-0. A lobbyist for the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association testified that they were not opposed to review, but would be seeking to negotiate some as-yet undisclosed amendments. According to sources, they were seeking a guarantee that if the Board was abolished, its licensing functions would be moved over to the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

On Tuesday, the commission voted for a pay increase for pilots – though not as much of an increase as they had pushed for.

Her bill does not actually abolish the Commission. It sets up an upcoming legislative review that would force its supporters to justify its existence, and possibly phase it out if they cannot do so to the Legislature’s satisfaction.

The Commission governs the activities of the 6o or so bar pilots who are recognized experts on navigating large ships through the waters of the four large bays that most northern California shipping passes through: San Francisco, San Pablo, Suisun and Monterey. The pilots move about 9,000 ships a year through these waters, or about 150 ships each.
These are highly specialized jobs which only go to experienced sailors — most of whom have been captains of large ships and are in their 40s by the time they get behind the wheel. The work is also dangerous, involving boarding large ships miles from land that sometimes includes climbing up rope ladders in heavy seas.

It’s also very well-paid work, with a pilot making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. However, the work is not always steady, with pilots putting in extremely long hours when they are working, but sometimes having weeks off, as well. As the economy tanked and shipping volume went down, so did pilots take-home pay, though to levels that most people can only dream of: $490,000 in 2006, $450,000 in 2008 and $405,000 in 2009, and just under $400,000 last year.

On Tuesday, the commission voted a pay increase for the pilots,which they say would increase pilot compensation to $432,000 by 2015. The pilots are paid depending on how many jobs they do, so the exact pay isn’t specified. The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA), a trade group representing shippers, claimed the increase could lead to pilots being paid more–up to $530,000 by 2015–figures the Bar Pilots Association said were completely innacurate.The Commission also found that “there was no significant evidence that there would be diversion of ship traffic away from the Bay Area as a result of the rate increases under consideration.”

“We appreciate the Commission’s recommendations,” said Charles Goodyear, a spokesman for the Bar Pilots Association. “They reflect the inherently important and dangerous job San Francisco Bar Pilots perform on the water every day to keep Northern California shipping moving. The Commissioners voting in support of this modest rate increase included a representative from the shipping industry. And as the Commission notes, the pilots will be facing higher costs and larger vessels calling on Northern California ports in the years ahead. Skilled pilots will be in particular demand to keep ship traffic moving when the America’s Cup sailing race will be conducted on San Francisco Bay in 2013.”

In March, the Bar Pilots Association submitted a request to the Commission to raise bar pilots’ pay to $600,000 a year by 2015 — though this may have been an initial bid intended to set up a negotiating position. Representatives of the association were not immediately available for comment. A representative of the commission said he could not comment until the Brown administration took an official position on Huber’s bill.

The pilots sit in a sometimes uncomfortable spot between the public and private sectors. They’re government by a public oversight board, but their salaries and benefits are paid for by shipping companies, in a deal overseen by the state.

The bar pilots were in the news in 2009 over a dispute over a shortfall in their privately-funded pension system, as well as over a push for a raise by the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association. Then there was SB 300, a bill by Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, which became law that same year. Among other provisions, SB 300 charged shipping companies a one-time fee to buy updated laptops and software used in navigating the complex channels of the Bay system.

Not surprisingly, shippers were supportive of Huber’s sunset actions.

“The sunset process isn’t new and isn’t unique to this board,” said PMSA vice president Mike Jacob. He added, “When you go through the process and know someone is looking over your shoulder as a public agency, it makes you define your purpose a little more.”

The idea of making bar pilots public employees has been floated from time to time. Port of Los Angeles bar pilots are city employees who make about $227,000 a year, up from $198,000 three years ago. But San Francisco pilots point out they face far more technically-demanding waters.

The San Francisco pilots also note that they pay for their own health and liability insurance — at a cost of many thousands of dollars a year, given their dangerous line of work. Four bar pilots around the country died in their line of work over 18 months from late 2005 to early 2007, though none were in California.

In terms of the potential liability, one could look at Capt. John J. Cota, the former bar pilot who was at the helm of the 900-ft. Cosco Busan when it clipped the Bay Bridge in 2007 and spilled 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. Cota was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for negligence, and also faced lawsuits and thousands in fine.


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