By PHILLIP CEASE
For Ports Authority spending, opacity is the rule
A recent investigation by The Nerve into state agency spending reveals that the State Ports Authority, or SPA, does not report the agency’s spending with the detail that other state agencies do.
In June of 2016, for example, the most recent date spending data is available, SPA listed $35.5 million under the heading of “other contractual services.” The breakdown: $10 million to the SPA from the operation and maintenance fund, and $25.5 million to the SPA from the capital improvement fund.
For fiscal year 2015-2016, SPA spent over $90 million with the only two payees named as “BOR Revenue” ($10 million) and “Ports Authority” ($80.35 million).
According to the state spending database, SPA regularly pays itself and no other vendor or contractor with those amounts ranging from $25.5 million to $250,000 per transaction.
This is in stark contrast to other state agencies that report their spending. For example the Department of Transportation (not known for its transparency as a rule) shows the agency’s expenses all the way down to categories such as “telecommunication services,” “building renovations,” and even “catered meals.” Under all of these expenses, it’s possible to view what vendor was paid.
But it’s not possible to view that level of detail for SPA spending on a monthly or yearly basis. It’s not possible, in other words, to know the agency spends money it reports as receiving.
SPA officials have long defended the agency’s seemingly improvident spending decisions by pointing out that it doesn’t take state money in the form of General Fund dollars. However, the agency is owned by the state – hence the need for a ports “authority” (indeed it’s one of only two state-owned ports in the nation), and the agency takes in fine and fee revenue – which is by definition state money. And that, of course, is why SPA officials take home state paychecks.
The size of those paychecks, however, aren’t available. Unlike other agencies, SPA doesn’t disclose its salaries on the state database. The Nerve noticed this back in 2011, when reporter Eric Ward had to submit a Freedom of Information request to find out what the salary earned by agency’s president and CEO, Jim Newsome. (Newsome’s salary was – let’s say – impressive.)
Is SPA’s spending really so flawlessly sound that transparency isn’t an issue? Apparently not, since the agency found it necessary to sue two contractors over the design of the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal. Maybe taxpayers should know what’s going on at our most opaque state agency, after all.
Phillip Cease is director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council