Harbor district can do better, grand jury says

The Port San Luis Harbor District could be run more efficiently, the county civil grand jury concluded in a report that questioned how the district prepares its financial reports and awards contracts to concessionaires.

The report said the district could lose out on additional funding if too much sand prevents boats from launching into the water, and it raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest involving harbor district commissioners.

The report was titled “Port San Luis: A Tarnished Jewel” — a title Harbor Manager Steve McGrath said doesn’t reflect the district’s ongoing improvements and maintenance aimed at making its facilities more accessible and its operations more transparent.

“I just look around at it and go, ‘It isn’t tarnished,’ ” McGrath said Friday, while standing near one of the two boat launches. However, he said, “It would be naïve to think any agency or organization doesn’t have room for improvement.”

The recommendations from the civil grand jury are advisory only, but by law the district must respond to the report by Sept. 23.

The harbor district was formed in 1954 and includes most of the county south of the Cuesta Grade, with the exception of Morro Bay and Los Osos.

Its five-member board of commissioners oversees a $4 million budget, two-thirds of which is funded by property taxes.

In the two years since he became harbor manager, McGrath said he’s revamped the website to include district staff reports, budgets and other information to increase the district’s transparency.

Revenue potential

McGrath agreed with the grand jury’s finding that the district hasn’t publicized that it has an assembly room available for rent for public events in its Gateway building.

But on other points he disagreed.

Contrary to the grand jury’s conclusion that the district has no competitive bidding process for concessionaires — which could, the report said, result in a loss of money — McGrath said the district has advertised five requests for proposals for concessions in the past two years.

District commissioners in May extended the boatyard operator’s contract by a year, with increased rent, without competitive bidding. They did so because administrators want to improve the launch facilities before they issue a request for proposals, McGrath said.

The grand jury also criticized the district for not providing more specific details about its assets, such as its piers, buildings and equipment.

McGrath said the district’s financial statements are produced in the required format and has received clean annual audits. District officials have discussed whether to create documents to review the costs and revenue of separate facilities and services, such as the Port San Luis Lighthouse.

District policies

The grand jury questioned whether the district is losing out on funding when boats can’t be launched because of heavy seas, poor weather conditions or too much sand in the launch area.

“Our inability to launch boats has a greater inability on our public service function than on our bottom line,” McGrath said.

The district is seeking grant funding to rebuild and extend its large boat hoist 60 feet into deeper water. A 2007 study concluded the project would cost $700,000.

It also starts dredging the area around its small-sports launch annually in March to make sure the water is deep enough to float a boat.

Conflict of interest

The report raised concerns that harbor commissioners should not vote in issues involving a service provider with whom they have a business relationship, or on issues involving the San Luis Yacht Club, if they are members.

Both examples involve longtime Commissioner Jim Blecha, who stored a boat he was trying to sell at the district boatyard for a reduced rate.

The grand jury found that the district offers reduced rates in certain cases but does not publish them.

McGrath said Blecha sold his boat earlier this year and it was removed from the boatyard in March. Blecha was absent when the commission voted on the extended boatyard agreement in May.

Blecha said that he is careful to recuse himself if necessary.

“There is no need to unless you stand to gain financially from it,” he said.

A commissioner for about 26 years, Blecha said he’s proud that the district has maintained the working harbor while upgrading facilities and streamlining operations to make it more efficient.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.