April 4, 2013

Miami congressman, seaport director call for more Customs funding at MIA and PortMiami

The flower-import industry is particularly concerned that delayed customs inspections at Miami International Airport will hurt business during the busy Mother’s Day season. PortMiami also is being negatively affected.

Federal budget cuts to U.S. Customs and Border Protection that have already delayed thousands of international passengers at South Florida’s air and sea ports are starting to affect a different type of cargo: flowers.

Ninety percent of all flowers imported to the United States arrive through Miami International Airport, where they are inspected by customs officers who specialize in perishable goods. If inspections are delayed, local importers run the risk of having flowers go bad — or at least not arriving in time to make it into refrigerated trucks for delivery across the country.

It’s not just flowers being threatened by the cuts. Tons of fish, fruits and vegetables — including 97 percent of all the asparagus brought into the country — must also clear MIA customs every day. They are being delayed by the federal cuts known as the sequester, which has resulted in slashed overtime pay for customs officers.

“We’re talking billions of dollars in goods,” said Bill Johnson, director of PortMiami, which has also seen slower cargo ship inspections since the automatic, across-the-board cuts began March 1.

The port has been trying to drum up new fresh-produce cargo business from countries such as Costa Rica, Peru and Chile, said Johnson said, who met Wednesday in Tallahassee with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to relay concerns that the customs delays could deter any potential deals.

Johnson spoke at a news conference organized at the airport Thursday by U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat whose Kendall-to-Key West district includes many small businesses that import flowers and produce. Garcia sent a letter Thursday to the House appropriations committee asking for “strong funding levels” for customs officers.

“What we can’t do is tie our hands behind our backs and do nothing,” Garcia said, as newly arrived international passengers streamed out of customs behind him. “We can’t let Washington hurt us just as we’re coming out of this economic downturn.”

Though threatened furloughs for customs officers have been put on hold nationally, the sequester has hit South Florida’s airports hard. The Federal Aviation Administration last month considered shutting down an air-traffic control tower at Opa-locka Executive Airport before deciding it and 23 other towers across the country would remain open because they met certain key criteria. About 150 small airports nationwide, including North Perry in Pembroke Pines, are still slated to lose money to pay for air-traffic controllers.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat whose district includes North Perry, held her own news conference Thursday railing against the shutdown — though she voted for the legislation that resulted in the sequester in the first place. Garcia was not in Congress at the time.

The delays are troubling for the flower industry as it gears up for one of its busiest times of the year: Mother’s Day. Last year, more than 5 billion flowers — “stems,” in industry-speak — came in through MIA in the lead up to the holiday, said Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida. The airport usually brings in extra customs officers from other ports to inspect the shipments.

“This time, they don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said. That could affect the industry’s entire supply chain, from warehouses to trucks to grocery stores, she added.

At MIA, customs was already understaffed before the sequester, which began in a busy month for South Florida tourism. International passengers waited for four hours at customs checkpoints during some weekend days in March, causing hundreds of them to miss their connecting flights. Some had to spend the night at the airport.

Rolando Aedo, senior vice president for marketing and tourism at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said his office has been getting phone calls, photos and videos from people standing in line. Half of MIA passengers are international, he said.

“There are people … telling us they will not come back,” Aedo said, calling it “a very, very dire situation.”

The impact has been smaller for cruise passengers at the port, Johnson said, at least for now. The port did not have the same pre-existing Customs officer shortage as the airport. PortMiami has had to bring in additional Miami-Dade police officers to escort passengers to a customs checkpoint in one terminal, after the sequester forced the closure of a second checkpoint.

Johnson said he’s concerned about the long-term effect delays may have on passengers — especially for cruises, which require quick turnaround times for thousands of people to board and disembark ships.

“We’ve got to make sure that cruise passengers leave with a smile,” he said. “This is not a welcome mat.”

A previous version of this article misstated the name of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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